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The Artist

Our collective imagination is flabby. Atrophied, I fear, from disuse.

Many of us would rather wait for the movie than read the book. Incarnating a character in our heads is too much work. We have an appetite for car chases, and explosions, and skin. These seem more accessible than subtle beauty or complexity of story.

Every now and again, a work of art comes along that challenges our imagination. That calls to that creative spark deep inside each of us. A work that nourishes us along the way with such excruciating loveliness that we are helpless to refuse.

The Artist is such a work.

It is a story without words. Nearly. A silent film about the end of silent film. In fact, until George Valentin has a nightmare in which he is surrounded by sound but unable to speak, I am unaware that even environmental sounds are completely absent. No shuffle of shoes against the floor. No honking horns. Only music. And image.

It is enough.

Sometimes the images are so exquisitely framed, it is painful. Two figures at table. Back to back. The falling star and the supernova. In stark relief. Both so graceful and elegant. So captivating. Alas, she is coming into her own just as his world is disappearing.

But somewhere inside this passing of the torch is a respect…an honoring of the one who made place. Who had faith. A loyalty that is right and good. And Beautiful.

Go see The Artist. Give yourself the gift of an hour and a half without words. Let the music carry you. Feast on the scrumptious images: the clothes, the hair, the cars. The elegance and refinement of a world too unfamiliar to most of us. And trust your imagination to help tell the story. It is more capable than you think.

Christmas in Appalachia…a Remembrance

I run my fingers over the velvet cloth of my dress. Hand-stitched by my mother. Like all of my clothes. It is a wonder to me; this cloth. Like fur. So delicious under my hands. Dark blue. Too wonderful to be real.

I click my black patent leather shoes together and listen to the squishy sound they make. It will scuff them, I know. I can’t not do it.

An excited hum fills the church as everyone scoots together to make more room. So many people. Some of the men pull out folding chairs to put at the end of the pews, and I know that this night is not like others…

The fragrance of cedar mixes with a scent I can only describe as colored light and tinsel. Warm. Artificial. But good. Very good. Delicate icicles sparkle against the lights, and I know someone very like my mother (it might have been my mother) has hung them. One at a time. Draped carefully over the end of the branch. Personally I always favored the technique of throwing them against the tree and letting them find their own place. I usually got two handfuls thrown before my mother very unceremoniously put an end to that mess.

In my mind, I rehearse the words I have practiced over and over. A poem. Short. About a box. A gift box that folds out to form a cross. It is clever. I know that. But I am not really sure why.

The singing begins. My dad always fusses about the crazy harmonies of Christmas carols. They don’t behave properly. And men and women who know nothing of the shaped notes in the hymnal…who find their pitches “by ear”…will be chasing these chords all night. But I like them. These strange songs. These only ever at Christmas songs.

I couldn’t tell you what is happening inside me. I only know that it is other. A flirtation with something beyond my little world. I know it in that most important knowing…the inside knowing.

Without words.

In abject defiance of language.

The time comes for our class to mount the stage. My heart pounds. I search for the words like they are floating in the air somewhere. I feel sick at my stomach. My aunt Janice looks at me. My turn has come. Marvelously, the words find me just in time. I say the poem. Words in a pattern. Words I do not thoroughly understand. Yet they strum against something inside me. Stoking a fire of wonder…of mystery.

It is beginning.

It is more important than I could know.

I don’t remember what happens after the poem….until…brown sacks are retrieved from beneath the tree. Every person will receive one. There is an orange, an apple, several unidentifiable nuts in their shells (these I will give to my dad),  fragrant peppermint, and vanilla cream drops cloaked in chocolate.

And everything that is this night coalesces in a jumble of impression and awe. It is old-fashioned, perhaps. But it very capably says to a little girl of the mountains that this night is like no other. That everything you think you know is being undone. That the miracle of Jesus in the world has the power to transform ordinary into extraordinary.

I have worn it. I have breathed it. I have eaten it.

And the reality of this plants itself deep inside me. And I will never be content in a world without wonder. I will spend the rest of my life chasing that which I first tasted in a simple, ordinary, extraordinary Appalachian Christmas.

A gift for you. A remnant of my little girl Christmas in the mountains. A song we sang every year. One that has proper harmonies. 🙂 Enjoy.

Tidings of Comfort and Joy…

Every year I pull them out with the decorations. They go into a basket in the living room. And we read them over and over. And they are just as funny, or sweet, or troubling as they were the first time. Some of them have Christmas stickers or crayon marks lovingly added by little fingers over the years. And they are one of the threads that ever weaves us together as a family.

Christmas Books

Picture books. Advent devotionals. Classic literature. All have a place. And when I hold them in my hands, a panorama of other Christmases in other places, but with these same dear faces, plays before my eyes. And the fire of gratitude is stoked inside me.

Here are a few of our family’s every year favorites. I would love to know yours.

The Glorious Impossible by Madeleine L’Engle with paintings of Giotto  The Nativity as framed by one of my favorite storytellers, accompanied by the sumptuous paintings of Giotto from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Giotto was a landmark artist; the forefather of the Renaissance. And this series of paintings is one of the more remarkable in all of western art. Add that to the beauty of L’Engle’s words, and the beauty of the story itself, and you have a masterpiece worth revisiting, over and over.

The Night Before Christmas by Clement Moore Just a few nights ago I was up during the night with Kenzie. I recited this poem to her. Twenty years rolled away in an instant, and I was holding her mommy as a brand new November baby, reciting the same poem into the night. I memorized it as a little girl. By osmosis. By listening to the Perry Como Christmas album approximately 478 times every year. (My brother and I double stacked it with the Chipmunks Christmas. Side one of both. Then flip the stack.)

The Cajun Night Before Christmas and The Hillbilly Night Afore Christmas My aunt introduced us to the Cajun version when she lived in New Orleans years ago. We love it! I later found the Hillbilly version. When I read it,  Appalachia is in my voice and in my heart.

Twas the night afore Christmas
‘Twixt ridgeback and holler,
No critter was twitchin
Nary hog dast to waller

Each keerful darn’t stockin’
War’ nail’t near the chimbly,
A hopin’ that Sainty’d
Be a extry bit fren’ly….

On the Incarnation by St. Antanasius It is one of the most important books I have ever read. Just over a hundred pages, but throbbing with the essence of the gospel. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In language precise and potent, Antanasius defends the most pivotal truth of Christianity. This year, I make it part of my preparation…

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss I never get all the way through without crying. My children indulge me. We all know someone like the Grinch whose heart is “two sizes too small”. I suppose I never want to forget that all of those someones can be made new. And that my family and I can be part of that. One of Kenzie’s favs so far. Can’t decide, though, if she just loves the black, white, and red illustrations. 🙂

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson Speaking of lost causes…. 🙂 No one has ever seemed more of a lost cause than the Herdman children. And yet, remarkably, they will help all of us see Christmas with new eyes. We laugh our way hysterically through almost the whole book, until that moment when things get really quiet and my kids say, “Mom, are you crying?” Beautiful!

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens There is a reason why everyone and his brother has wanted to tell this story. To give it their unique imprint. In it we see ourselves. Our best selves. Our worst selves. And, more than anything I think, we are reminded that it is never to late to choose a new course for our lives. This is a message we need to hear again and again. Some of us more than others. Read it aloud to your family. It is the work of an afternoon. It will spark wonderful discussion. and the language is delightful.

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas I read it every year. Yet, I find that the events of the year…the hard things, the joys, the new experiences…color the familiar stories, and I see something I have never seen before. Beautiful, hard, thought-provoking words from some of my favorite authors: C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L’Engle…that draw me deep into the longing, the mystery, and the magic of the season.

Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Henri J.M. Nouwen Nouwen has been a very influential voice in my life. I enjoy having him near in this Holy season. Short writings that orient my heart for the day.

The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson This story haunted me as a little girl. I could not get it out of my head. Or out of my heart. It haunts me still. But I still read it. May I always have eyes to see the unseen people in my world. May I be so discomfited that I must do something to help. I highly recommend the edition with Rachel Isadora’s luscious illustrations. They are positively captivating.

Your turn. What are the books you read over and over in this season?

11 Moments That Have Made My Heart Skip a Beat

Happy 11.11.11! This is the last of the 11 posts. It has been fun, but I am exhausted. Don’t expect to see anything new from me for a couple of days. Just read back through any of the 11’s you missed. And maybe leave a comment. 😉

Thanks to Bryan who suggested this topic. It was, I believe, the most fun to write. I find myself, at the end, very grateful.

Giving Birth to My Babies  I think it is safe to say I have never encountered anything so transcendent…so astonishing…so absolutely unbelievable as the miracle of life emerging from my own body. Sure I was working. But I felt no pride. Only the most profound sense of having…for a moment…touched the otherworldly. Of standing in a rift between time and eternity. Out of which came this remarkable little bundle of life. I saw it. I felt it. But I do not understand it. And why God allows us to be part of it…I do not know. It is an extravagance of grace.

Sunset, Florence, Summer 2007. (see above) We stood on the Ponte Vecchio and watched a Master artist at work; painting the sky in an ever evolving fury of color. It wrapped itself around us and we were inside it. How do you plan a moment like this? What would you do to attain it if you could? It is gift. Lavish. Reckless. Glorious.

Stepping into the upper chapel at Sainte Chapelle  We wound our way up a dimly lighted stone staircase. It was impossible to glimpse any hint of what awaited til we were spilled out into the room. And then, Oh My!! Three soaring walls of stained glass. Floor to ceiling. The room vibrated with color. It splashed onto the floor. It hummed in the air. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I could only stand there, helpless, tears running down my face. I was undone.

Long had I resented popes and priests who built such extravagances as these from the tithes of peasants who could hardly feed their families. Until that moment. At that moment, I knew I would gladly starve to be cloaked in the glory of God like this. Just once. To feel His Holiness rest on my face as a shaft of colored light.

The Invocation in the Eucharist to make the Bread and Wine, Body and Blood  We are supposed to be singing at this moment. But I frequently find myself unable. It startled me the first time. So weighty and profound, so marvelous and mysterious. I thought, perhaps, that over time it would lose some of this power. I was wrong. Three years later, my eyes fill with tears and my throat closes. My it always be so.

Watching my daughter give birth Don’t even begin to think it is the same thing as number 1. Not even close. Yes, there is the miracle of life begetting life. Of ten fingers and ten toes, and breath and blood. But there is something else. Seeing your daughter become something else. A life giver. She who brings forth. Brave. Strong. Determined. All love. All sacrifice. A miracle of a different sort.

Standing in front of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night  I am a great lover of art. It is not unusual for me to have strong feelings about works I see. But only a precious few have inspired a visceral reaction. This was one of them. The curious thing is that I knew very little about van Gogh when I encountered it over 20 years ago. It’s as though some of the immense passion van Gogh poured into his work was able to communicate itself to me directly, without translator. Gut to gut. Soul to soul. Understanding his story as I do now, I can give words to some of that. But all I had in that moment was the intense pang in my heart that told me there was far more here than swirls and stars and paint. And that bound me to the work, and to the artist, forever.

Watching Jake draw  It has fascinated me since he was a little boy. Art seems to pour out of him. Like water. He picks up a pencil and begins. No hesitations as he thinks long about what to draw. No draw erase, draw erase, til it’s right. The picture is already in his head (or in his heart?) and his hand knows precisely how to translate it to paper. It is a wonderment to me. I am in awe.

Being in Monet’s Garden at Giverney  Perhaps it all comes of having read too many fairy tales. The ones where someone gets swept up out of his day to day world and carried off into some fairy realm. When I was in Monet’s Garden, I felt that I had stepped into one of his paintings. As we meandered over the grounds, I kept finding myself facing a perspective that I knew only too well. But now the fronds of weeping willow swayed with the breeze. Bees hovered over blossoms. And there were ripples between the water lilies. And still, there was this sense that I must be dreaming. That this was too extraordinary to be believed.

Josh singing Amazing Grace at his school talent show  He was a quiet seventh grader. None of his friends or teachers suspected he was so talented. He stepped onto the stage, I gave him an introduction, and lyrical incense flowed from his mouth. Pristine, clear, sweet. Nobody moved. Everyone was completely silent. As though no one dared sully the sacredness of this moment. And I knew how much it would mean to him. And my mother’s heart swelled with gladness.

Up From the Grave…  When I was a little girl, Easter was a new dress, Sunrise service, and a song we only ever sang on that day. It began, appropriately, as a dirge. “Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my Savior, waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord.” The whole time we sang this my heart beat faster and faster because I knew what was coming. “Up from the Grave He arose! With a mighty triumph o’er His foes…” Even when I was too little to understand all that the song meant, something inside me knew that the whole world was turned upside down between verse and chorus. I sang the song many times as I grew older. Even as a cynical teenager. But it never lost its magic. Even now, just typing the words, I have butterflies in my stomach.

The Proposal  It’s not like it was a complete surprise. We had already talked about marriage. We had even looked at rings. Just in case. 😉 But when it happened, for real, I was giddy and scared and excited. And a little piece of me seemed to float over the whole thing and look down on it, like it was happening to someone else. And it took wearing the ring and telling people for a few days before that little piece of me crawled back into my skin. And I was able to believe. And it became true.

 I would love to hear about the moments that have left you breathless. Do tell….

 

11 Favorite Turns of Phrase

I have an almost idolatrous relationship with words. I admit it. To be able to express a thought, an emotion, with precision…to make it live in the mind and heart of another is deeply satisfying. I admire writers who string words together elegantly, evocatively. I have collected these for years. Here are a few of my favorites.

Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery…  ~Annie Dillard

In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. ~Aeschylus

All this indescribable thing that we call the Christmas atmosphere only hangs in the air as something like a lingering fragrance or fading vapor from the exhultant explosion of that one hour in the Judean hills nearly two thousand years ago.  But the savor is still unmistakable, and it is something too subtle or too solitary to be covered by our use of the word peace.  ~G.K. Chesterton

For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.  ~Mary Oliver

Trample not on any; there may be some work of grace there, that thou knowest not of.  The name of God may be written upon that soul thou treadest on; it may be a soul that Christ thought so much of as to give his precious blood for it; therefore, despise it not.
~Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful.  ~e.e.cummings

I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.  I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.  The function of man is to live, not to exist…  ~Jack London

I am the product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles.  Also, of endless books.  My father bought all the books he read and he never got rid of any of them.  There were books in the study, books in the drawing room, books in the cloakroom, books (two deep) in the great bookcase on the landing, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the cistern attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interest, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not.  Nothing was forbidden me.  In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves.  I had always the same certainty of finding a book that was new to me as a man who walks into a field has of finding a new blade of grass.  ~C.S. Lewis

My worship is a blue sky and ten thousand crickets in the deep, wet hay of the field. My vow is the silence under their song.  ~Thomas Merton

Most children enjoy the sound of language for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions and luscious word-sounds and the crunch and slither of onomatopoeia.  ~Ursula K. LeGuin

Luck!
In the house of breathings lies that word, all fairness. The walls are rubinen and the glittergates of elfinbone. The roof herof is of massicious jasper and a canopy of Tyrian awning rises and still descends to it. A grape cluster of lights hangs therebeneath and all the house is filled with the breathings of her fairness, the fairness of fondance and the fairness of milk and rhubarb and fairness of roasted meats and uniomargrits and the fairness of promise with consonantia and avowels. There lies her word, you reader! The height herup exalts it and the lowness her down abaseth it. It vibroverberates upon the tegmen and prosplodes from pomoeria.  ~James Joyce

Where have you found words wielded winsomely? A phrase that delights your senses?

 

 

11 Unforgettable Dining Experiences

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.
~A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner

Pooh and I are very like in this. I find food terribly exciting, especially when it is exquisitely prepared and beautifully served. Yes, I eat my fair share of leftovers and occasionally even stoop to fast food on the road. But I am passing fond of meals that nourish the senses. Preferably all of them. I favor long, slow meals accompanied by deep conversation and laughter. And if this happens to occur someplace beautiful with people I love, all the better. Here are 11 of my favorites.

Asia de Cuba, Anniversary March 2010
My sweet husband surprised me with a trip to New York for our 23rd anniversary. He chose the restaurant. He is brilliant. 🙂 Asia de Cuba is a trendy Asian/Cuban fusion restaurant. Philippe Starck designed the unique interior. White curtains and a holographic waterfall help create the unique atmosphere. Our waiter sat down at our table and spent a very long time talking with us to discover what we liked before making recommendations. Everything we ate was beautiful and delicious, but there were two distinct standouts. The calamari salad is one of their signature dishes. Crisp calamari with chayote, hearts of palm, bananas, cashews, chickory and raddichio, and sesame orange dressing. Amazing! And dessert. Oh. My!! The Bay of Pigs was gastrorgasmic. (My friend Maurilio sent this word to me after I tweeted the above picture. He was right!) Bananas covered in an impossibly delicate shell of caramelized sugar, ice cream (coffee I think) fudge and caramel sauces, warm chocolate chip cookies, macadamia nuts, fondant, and whipped cream. It should be illegal.

Gelateria Bellocco, Summer 2010
Our family has eaten our fair share of gelato. We are pretty finicky about what constitutes proper gelato. Last summer, Kelsey and I returned to our favorite gelateria in Florence. We ate there 3 times in 24 hours. But just two days later we were renouncing our favorite for Sergio’s marvelous creations. In particular, he makes a pistachio that uses salted pistachios. I was skeptical, but I was wrong. Salty, creamy, intense, addictive. If I lived in Italy I would have to go to a 12 step program. That’s all there is to it.

Mangia Nashville, Anniversary March 2011
An Italian feast! Five leisurely courses, each featuring two or three selections, served family style. Superb food prepared by Nick Pellegrino, who also sings, dances and quotes lines from the Godfather. It is a wonderful community experience, and a meal you will never forget. (By the way, the desserts at the top of the post are theirs.)

Country Breakfast at my Mama’s
Just ask my kids. If we are going to visit the first question is likely to be, “Do you think Mamaw will make breakfast?” My mother’s biscuits and gravy, and chocolate gravy (I kid you not), sausage, eggs, homemade jelly, fried apples, etc… is legendary. Better than Cracker Barrel. Even better than the Loveless. Yep. I said it.

Picnics in the Japanese Garden at Cheekwood
When the kids were little I would buy an annual pass. We would go every couple of weeks. We would look at the artwork in the museum, then stroll though the gardens and see what was blooming, or putting up shoots, or making seeds. But we would always end up in the Japanese Garden. It was our favorite. And this is where we would pull out our lunch. And just for a while, we were far away in Japan. And this was our garden. And nothing could be more natural than bringing our lunch out onto the lanai and breathing slowly and contemplating the waves of stone, and the colors and textures, the order, the calm.

Cafe Tomaselli, Salzburg
Mozart ate here. It’s true. I think I know why. The pastries are elegant and delicious, and surprisingly affordable. The cappuccino is warm, and frothy, and rich. And everything is served on proper plates and in proper cups, on proper trays, with lovely little sugar cubes and tiny glasses of water, and a spoon laid over the top. And one can imagine, just for a moment, that all of life is just this grand and elegant.

French Boulangeries
It took us exactly one morning to become Parisian, dashing into the local Boulangerie for our morning pastries. Our favorites were the Viennese rolls, soft warm bread with chocolate chips. We would walk down the street, nibbling, till we reached the courtyard behind Notre Dame. There we would finish our breakfast properly, perhaps sharing a bit with the birds.

Boudro’s on the Riverwalk, San Antonio
To sit along the riverwalk at night is nourishment in itself. Then add to that the most amazing guacamole I have ever eaten. It is their recipe we use to this day. Mesquite grilled Texas Quail in a molasses glaze, served over pepper jack grits. Gulf coast blue crab cakes with roasted corn sauce, jicama slaw, and tomatilla cream. Yum. Yum!

Johnnie Foxe’s, Dublin Ireland
Their mussels are legendary, and not without reason. Beautifully seasoned, tender and fresh. Best seafood chowder I ever ate. And our introduction to Banoffee pie. I have been playing with recipes ever since trying to get it just right. Everything is served up in a convivial atmosphere with all kinds of quirky kitsch all over the walls. Makes for interesting conversations. 🙂

Boma Cafe, Animal Kingdom Lodge, Disney World
Boma is beautiful, as is the whole of the lodge. And they serve up a whole buffet of African fare. Lentils, curries, soups, vegetables, meats, salads, all with exotic seasonings. A wonderful opportunity to sample a wide variety of unfamiliar foods.

African Supper, Malawi
We gathered under a great spreading acacia tree. There were a thousand stars overhead. Our freshly scrubbed bodies were chilly in the night air. A fire blazed, and there were lanterns on the tables. We filled our plates with nsima (rather like grits, but softer), greens with tomatoes and onions, beans, stewed meats, and bread toasted over the fire. We drank pineapple and mango sodas. And we relived the moments of the day. Our stomachs were filled, and we would sleep the sleep of the weary. Weary, but glad.

Tell me about the significant dining experiences in your life. What is it that makes them so?

Buon Appetit!

*Special thanks to Giorgio who supplies the topic for today’s post.

11 Places That Captivate Me

Perhaps it comes of being a farm girl. This susceptibility to…this affinity for…this visceral connection to…place.

It can happen for a variety of reasons. Often the people of a place, or the people with whom you encounter it, are what root it deep in memory. But sometimes the place itself has a mystery, a presence, a beauty that tugs at you; captivating, casting a spell.

Here are eleven places that have held me captive since first I saw them. I have had opportunity to revisit some. But all of them call to me. Like a lost lover. Beckoning. Begging me to return.

Malawi  “The Warm Heart of Africa” It is, perhaps, a geographic term, in part. But for me it will always be a people who love extravagantly. Who know a joy that has little to do with circumstance. Who embrace strangers and take them into their hearts. Here I witnessed some of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. I ate toast grilled over an open fire and “showered” under the stars. Here I saw my daughter in her element, loving well, full of joy.

Vernazza  A tiny town on the Italian Riviera that time forgot. No automobile traffic. Gorgeous old buildings snugged into the rocks, clambering over the top of one another for the best view of the Mediterranean. Life moves slowly here. Food is fresh and beautiful and delicious. Tender anchovies straight from the sea. The best pesto I have ever eaten. And Sciacchetra, a warm, rich, amber wine pressed locally from grapes that have been dried first. Lazy afternoons spent sunning on great boulders in the lagoon. Lazy evenings breathing sea breezes and watching the sun paint the sky. My children have been scheming ever since to figure out how we could move there. I do hope they sort it out.

Meteora The most extraordinary place I have ever been. Second largest monastic community in the world…built atop great stone buttes thrusting up out of the earth…nine hundred years ago. Crazy. But there is something very other about this place. The treacherous beauty. The set-apartness. The centuries of worship that have embedded themselves into the stone just like incense has embedded itself into the wood of the church. And you can feel it all around you. A weighty Presence. Wondrous.

Ireland I did not encounter a single locale in the whole of the country that did not have about it an air of magic…of the mystic. This people, this soil, have been so washed in story and song, in poetry and faith, in mystery and imagination, that it fairly throbs with enchantment. We trod the ground of ancient monasteries, stepped inside a 1500 year old church, stood before the glorious Book of Kells, breathed the heady book scent of the Trinity College Library (nirvana), sipped Guinness inside the factory, and gave our hearts to the Dingle Peninsula. My husband and children are connected to this island nation by blood. Mine is strictly an affair of the heart.

Paris  The Louvre, the Musee D’Orsay, L’Orangerie, Sainte Chapelle, Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, the boulangeries and patisseries, the Seine, The Eiffel Tower, the beautiful old buildings, the markets… A short train ride out to Monet’s Garden at Giverny or to Versailles. A lifetime would not be long enough to know Paris as I would like to know her. She romances from the moment you meet her. There is a quality of air..a way of being…that I have simply never known anywhere else. When I am with her, I am thoroughly in love with her. And when I am away, I remember her with a flutter in my heart.

Venice Venice in the morning is scrubbed cobblestones, fresh fish markets, ebullient flower boxes overspilling their bounds, and hot frothy cappucino. Venice at mid-day is clatter of church bells, lines of laundry stretched across the canals, vaporettos skimming over the lagoon to see the glass blowers at Murano, and cool salads of squid and baby octopus. Nighttime in Venice….ah, well…nighttime is St. Mark’s Square all aglow with orchestra playing and elegant dinner al fresco on white tablecloths, sinewy black gondolas soundlessly plying the canals to the not infrequent serenade of the gondolier, perusing an endless assortment of Carnevale masks, and falling asleep to the lap of water underneath my window.

Yellowstone National Park Yellowstone is like a great scavenger hunt of the most delicious sort. Around pretty much any bend in the road you can expect to be astounded and delighted by the vistas offered you. Natural wonders abound. Wildlife cavorts or lazes about everywhere. And the skies are so intensely blue they will break your heart. One moment I saw things that made me laugh out loud, next moment something that completely took my breath away. Can’t wait to go back and take my kids.

Salzburg  Salzburg is all marzipan and fondant. Everything is a little prettier than it has to be; the quintessence of Baroque architecture and ornament. Salzburg is Mozart and music, and one is apt to encounter a string quartet tuning up most anywhere. Salzburg is Mirabell Gardens, alpine vistas, and The Sound of Music. And Salzburg, for me, is lingering long with my lovely daughter over exquisite pastries and frothy cappuccino at the cafe that once served Herr Mozart himself.

Istanbul Exotic. Colorful. Ancient. Surprisingly cosmopolitan. Of course, it once was the crossroads of the world Even now, one can walk from Asia to Europe, simply by crossing a bridge. So much that matters happened here. Religiously. Politically. My heart pounds as I cross the threshold into the glorious Hagia Sophia. How many thousands of my brothers and sisters in the faith crossed this threshold before me?  Here is a startling collision of the old world and the new. I can use city wide wifi while shopping in the ancient spice bazaar. Construction workers sip Turkish tea from elegant glasses while perched atop their bulldozers. It is paradox. It is chaos. It is wonderful.

East Tennessee When I was a little girl, I dreamed of leaving. Not the mountains, really. But the tiny town where I grew up. It is more precious to me now than it ever was then. I will probably never move back, but I take great delight in standing on the soil that gave me roots. So much of me is woven into that place, even though I have been gone for 25 years. And something of those mountains, the creeks, the country roads, the farms and the people who love them, is part of me still. And when I am there, I can feel it relax a little. And be glad.

Franklin Home. It is, I suppose, an idea as much as it is a place. But here is where my babies learned to crawl. Here we brought them before the Lord and thanked Him for them. Our playground is here. Our park. Our favorite restaurants and pubs. An amble down Main Street always means bumping into friends. It is difficult to imagine a better place to be a family. And as much as we love to travel, it is always, ALWAYS good to come home.

Is there a pace that has stolen your heart? When you daydream, where are you?

*Third in a series of eleven posts of elevens; one for each of the first eleven days of the eleventh month of 2011.

**Photo credit for the haunting nighttime photo of Venice goes to my daughter. It was taken from the balcony of our apartment. If you look closely, you can see our clothesline in the upper foreground. Yes, I did hang our wash from this line. When in Venice… 😉

Eleven Elevens: the Concept

I am not mathy. Numbers are not my friends. Usually. But even I could not overlook the rather unusual occurrence coming up just two weeks from today. For the only time this century, the date will read 11.11.11. That’s wicked awesome! In my humble, non-mathematical opinion.

To commemorate this most auspicious occasion, I am writing eleven posts, beginning November 1st. In keeping with the theme, each will be a list of eleven….somethings. Eleven secrets to powerful procrastination, perhaps. Eleven places that have stolen my heart. Eleven great recipes for brussels sprouts. You get the picture.

Here’s where I could use your help. I have several list ideas already. But, as you can see from the whole brussels sprouts thing, not all of them are very good. Shoot me some suggestions. Sublime or ridiculous, all will be considered.

God bless you for your kindness.

May your tribe increase.

Elevenfold. 😉

The Way

It is the last place he ever expected to find himself. He comes to St. Jean Pied de Port to claim the dead body of his only son. A son he hardly knew. Who refused to fit his mold. Who left his doctoral program in anthropology to travel the world and live among the people who were just faces in a book.

How many times had Daniel begged him to join him? To be part of his world?

It had seemed so reckless. So irresponsible.

He sifts through Daniel’s belongings. Bits and pieces of a life. Photographs from far flung places. Of a young man fully alive. A young man worth knowing.

Tom decides he will accompany Daniel on his final journey.  The one he had only just begun. A pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. He will carry Daniel’s ashes, leaving them all along the way.

“I’m doing it for Daniel,” he says to the gendarme.

“You do not walk the Camino for another,” he replies. “You walk it for yourself.”

It will ask more of him than he can imagine. He will come to know his son. He will come to know himself. He will not be alone in this. There will be a motley assemblage of comrades. Who find one another. Who need one another. More than any of them realize.

Yorick “from Amsterdam” is here to lose weight for a wedding. This, despite the fact that he seems to know the culinary specialty of every region through which they pass, and insists upon sampling it. But there is another hunger in Yorick. A sorrow. One that can only be shared with those who have walked long and lived deep with one another.

Deborah is bitter, belligerent, and guarded. She walks the Way to stop smoking. She says. But she too is fleeing dark demons. She has forgotten how to trust, to be safe with others…how to forgive…how to forgive herself.

Irish writer, James, is brash and loud. He has some serious problems with the Church, who has been the cause of much bloodshed in his homeland. He has writer’s block. He is here to find a story. The story will find him.

The Way is an artfully made film from Emilio Estevez. The story is compelling and rich, with characters who get inside your heart. The cinematography is stunning. And the invitation…to slow down, to breathe deep, to open ourselves to God and to others…is for all of us.

I implore you to see the film. It will be gift to you. You will laugh. You will cry. You might dare to dream big dreams. And with your ticket, you will cast a vote for the beautiful and the true.

Buen Camino!

Wild and Extravagant…

The texture of the world, its filigree and scrollwork, means that there is the possibility for beauty here, a beauty inexhaustible in its complexity, which opens to my knock, which answers in me a call I do not remember calling, and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the spirit I seek.

~Annie Dillard

I have this collection…photographs from Yellowstone. I had to take them. But, how to explain them? How to describe the sense of urgency to capture…bits of mineral laden goo that to me resemble the musings of a Kandinsky or Pollack? Charred black trunks standing valiantly against stone and sky. Austere. Piercing. Simmering pots of pink mud that make me laugh out loud. Stones painted in umber, sienna, and olive by the continual washing of geyser runoff.

It’s not roses or sunsets or babies. Not your typical fodder for photographs, or meditations on beauty. But I find them captivating. That God would choose to spend His creative capital so recklessly; to imbue the most humble of creations with wonder and a raw grandeur.

There is, perhaps, a lesson in this. How many other places around me does beauty lie, unseen? A teenaged boy who is still growing into his long, gangly limbs. An old woman, bent by the years, whose skin hangs in folds. A stranger whose angry bravado mars, but cannot completely conceal, the image of God. If I linger long enough…if I train my eye to search for it, what might I see?

I submit these quirky images for your perusal, along with observations by a couple of kindred spirits. And I challenge you…I challenge me…to walk through this day with eyes wide open.

Wild and extravagant beauty is all around us.

The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font…Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap: and the creator loves pizzazz.

~Annie Dillard

Nature is mythical and mystical always, and spends her whole genius on the least work.

~Henry David Thoreau

Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.

~Annie Dillard

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