Vincenza

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Today is my grandmother’s birthday. Her name was Vincenza Tortorici Masi, known to all her friends as Vinny and to all kids in my neighborhood as Grandma. She would have been 101. I know some things about her childhood, but I wish I knew more. I wish I had asked her.

I read MAUDE by Donna Mabry, an obscure book recommended to me by Amazon analytics that cost less than $2.00 and I devoured it in a hotel room in Baltimore. The author tells the story of her grandmother in the first person. The interrupted childhood that Maude experienced, serving as a midwife and caretaker from the age of 7, the deprivation during the Great Depression are reminiscent of my own grandmother’s youth, and early adulthood which she spent caring for her 4 younger siblings and an ill mother. Vincenza’s father drank and once chained her and her brother up in a bathtub, an event she brought up frequently in the days before her death. When I finished reading Maude early in the morning I felt the loss of the book and the loss of my grandmother and mother keenly.

I still learn about my grandmother’s life. When i went to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, they passed around a box that resembled a pencil case or a small child’s shoe box. This little box filled with pasta and beans was the “Relief” Grandma had told me about during the Depression, which was expected to feed my grandparents and infant mother for a week.

In the PBS special The Italian Americans I learn that in my grandmother’s early years, Italians worshipped in the basements of the Catholic churches because the Irish priests considered the Italian  devotion to the saints paganistic. The feasts we would go to as children each
year  were established to bring the saints and the culture into the American sunlight.

What I know about her was she loved to cook and found doing the laundry soothing. She loved to dance. She told stories that I believed when I was very small. Where is Philip? I would ask. In my pocket she would reply and I thought it true.

I wish I had asked more.

embers

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In Art and Physics by Leonard Shlatin I learn that artists in Egypt depicted the Sun in its divinity, but that the Greeks and artists for generations deemphasized it to “cut down on glare”, until Van Gogh who recognized the “primordial furnace” and in doing so “emancipated color” along with the other Fauves.
If I leave work on time now in mid February, the primordial furnace’s embers glow pink   and the sun sets behind the dairy barn silo which is now an art studio. I am ecstatic.

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The labyrinth rises again above the thinning snow and I can walk it again. Swiftly, in the cold.  I am charmed by the frozen garden in the morning light which does resembled the muted art of Winslow Homer who did not share the sensibility of those would free color. I remember my hot love affair with the garden in summer when it was at its beauty’s height and sadness and fear at the thought of days like these.

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marcesence

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“We live in all we seek. The hidden shows up in too-plain sight. It lives captive on the face of the obvious–the people ,events, and things of the day–to which we as sophisticated children have long since become oblivious. What a hideout: Holiness lies spread and borne over the surface of time and stuff like color.” Annie Dillard, For The Time Being

The withered leaves of the maple tree continue to cling to it. I learn that these leaves are ‘marcesent’ and some trees hold on to their leaves in winter for nourishment and hydration.

At my last visit to the labyrinth, it is under snow, with just a few stone markers rising above it. I walk it the best I can, using my memory and the occasional stone landmark that I can make out. I feel lost and adrift, unable to meditate when I lose my structure. On the way out, I follow my own tracks, and once more, I have a path and some direction.

wpid-20150201_150121.jpgAnnie Dillard scoffs at the concept of spiritual path. She also advises that writers should follow a writing master. I read her all the time, so I consider her my master. Yet, here you will read that she questions the central metaphor of my blog (and she does it so well). More to the point, she challenges anyone who is attempting to understand the Infinite. But then, she shifts her thought–“except one thing”. Behold, more Annie Dillard:

Spiritual path is the hilarious popular term for those night-blind mesas and flayed hills in which people grope, for decades on end, with the goal of knowing the absolute. They discover others spread under the stars and encamped here and there by watch fires, in groups or alone, in the open landscape; they stop for a sleep, or for several years, and move along without knowing toward what or why. They leave whatever they find, picking up each stone, carrying it awhile, and dropping it gratefully and without regret, for it is not the absolute, though they cannot say what is. Their life’s fine. Impossible goal justifies the term “spiritual.” Nothing, however, can justify the term “path” for this bewildered and empty stumbling, this blackened vagabondage–except one thing: They don’t quit.  They stick with it. Year after year they put one foot in front of the other, though they fare nowhere. Year after year they find themselves still feeling with their fingers for lumps in the dark.” – from For The Time Being

Summer

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My Grandfather left us many of his paintings. One of them hangs in my bedroom. It is different than his others, which are landscapes or ordered still life paintings. The flower painting seems to be more of a study or experiment. The flowers vary in their renderings, the orange ones completely flat, the yellow with a bit more development in the paint and then grey flowers with pink highlights which are the most  three dimensional. The flowers are not presented in a realistic manner, they fill the canvas and have neither roots and stems nor a vase to contain them. I often meditate on the painting, allowing my eyes to focus on one flower or another and the pleasing contrasts among them.

Suddenly last night I happened to glance at the painting and was filled with what may be laughably obvious. I saw in my imagination my grandfather in his Deer Park home mixing the bright paint and placing his brush on the white canvas. The sunlight that fills the bedroom he has made into a studio is bright and warm. It is summer. The intimacy and lasting power of this act in time. The gift I have in surrounding myself with his work and therefore what remains of him on earth. The summer on my wall even in the throes of winter. I then flashed in my mind the future of the painting, after me. I imagined it stacked in a row of others in a dark closet. Today, however, I do not awaken like an Ebeneezer, newborn with recognition at the meaning of his life span. I just hope I keep awake.

Spring

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The statues of Mary and Joseph in my front yard, which once belonged to my grandmother, were pummelled by the wind for weeks gave way and are now shrouded with snow. When I tried to pick up Mary, the cement felt brittle in the cold and i thought i should let them rest until Spring.
It is Spring at my college, or rather that is what this semester is named, “Spring 15”. There is so much darkness, as I spend my days in a windowless room and come out only when the sun has set. I don’t mind it much  in this kind of weather and actually feel cozy at midday but early in the morning before I leave for work I am filled with dread as I anticipate the muted light. There are a few moments when i feel really alive and participating in something greater than myself. Last week a mother came in filled with immense dignity and anger for her disabled child. As we talked her anger turned into heaving sobs. How dearly she wanted to protect her child from pain. I was humbled to witness her great love. The last time i was at the labyrinth the ground was flooded in one of the quadrants yet frozen and crunchy in others. The garden was brown and sad and abandoned.

Sister Woods

Creative Culture

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My mother (on the right) and my Aunt Michele agreed to have me take photos in the woods by our house. It was really hot that day out and the mosquitoes were eating us alive but I am so happy they let me take photos anyways. They can have these photos forever of them together. They grew up on Long Island living right next to the woods. They use to play in the woods with their brothers too. They would go down to the creek by their house and stick their toes in the chilly water.

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My mother once lost her favorite doll by the creek and she pretty much never went there again. That always haunted me she lost her most prized possession at the creek. I loved playing in those woods with my little sister too. We use to be teachers, doctors, dancers, magicians, adventurers in the woods.

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idols

20141231_135720I walked the labyrinth on December 31, the last day of 2014.  The sun was bright and there were no leaves on the labyrinth, and for the first time, the ground was frozen. There was an enormous kale plant that had turned bright red, but otherwise the colors were somber and I was grateful for the sunshine.

I went to the labyrinth next on January 3, after a profound yoga class. It was hailing and dressing that morning in black and grey I had felt dim, smiling to myself I whispered “I am the Woman in Red” to cheer myself up, but somehow a rather tranquil melancholy which matched the grey of the day followed me and I just relaxed into aligning myself with the wintry mood.  The afterglow of my yoga class somehow allowed me to observe my own dark mood without the usual fear, sadness and judgment. There was a taste of ashes in my mouth.

When I got to the labyrinth, I discovered that the statue of the little girl with her arms outstretched with birds perching on them was gone. The waterfall was dry and even the bright red kale plant which I had just discovered on my previous visit was gone.  I cried.  The statue, celebrating the life of the little child who had died of cancer, has come to me to symbolize the labyrinth, my secret garden, my very own place. As I took the winding path I reflected that I had no one to ask about what had happened, and it is absolutely not my place in the least.  I am not a member of the community, and Kathy the pastor who was always so kind, is gone. I now think it must have been vandals.little girl

In the moment I was very shaken and bereft, but I had to admit to myself that this is was illusory.  I thought of all those who lost homes (and the symbolic objects within those homes such as family pictures) to devastating catastrophes.   I thought of moving out of my parent’s home, of readying it for sale this summer.  We found many papers of my mother’s.  I opened up a notebook and she had written about her competing commitments around clutter.  “I want to clear my space, but our things have meaning.” Hence, many of those things remain in my basement.

During the Protestant Reformation, many zealous Protestants destroyed statues of the Catholic Church. I think of how painful that must have been even for some of the reformers.  My grandmother’s statue of Mary and Joseph are aging and cracked and the snowfall this week has caused them to bow forward.mary

The Woman in Red

My niece Sydney Gabel, who has a blog called Creative Culture featured me.

Creative Culture

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Today is an exciting day because it is the first post I’ve written that has accomplished everything I wanted to do with Creative Culture. Columns about the amazing people that surround my life. I am excited to announce my Aunt Michele as the first participant in my culture experiment.

Meet my Aunt Michele, Dean of Montgomery Community College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is a vision in any color and looks sleek as ever in all black and white ensemble with a pop of red color. I decided I would interview her for Creative Culture as we discuss her favorite pop culture as well as her own personal trends and advice for college students. So let’s get to it!

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Hi, Michele First up, what’s your favorite movie right now? Of all time? 

M: Paris is Burning and Grey Gardens are two of my favorite films. I saw them years after they…

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Nowell

candlesPink flesh colored leaves in December have replaced the yellow autumn leaves dusting the labyrinth. The labyrinth has become female in the winter, becoming the most beautiful and lasting thing in the garden no longer competing with roses and mums for my eye or attention, the white rocks and the wet ground more alive because of the death and dormancy surrounding her.

I am far from the labyrinth now, under bright skies in Florida and I wonder why I brave the cold each winter. No reason seems strong enough to stay when there is so much color and light here. How can it feel like Christmas asks Paul. He and I had Channukah with his family and upon hearing the ancient prayers, I closed my eyes and thoughts of thousands of years and thousands of prayers, of candles lit through time.  At church today with my sister, celebrating the Holy Family, we sang The First Nowell. The spelling intriqued me. The song I learned was from the 16th century and once more I was transported, thinking of the first singers of the song and its melody enduring through the generations.  The lyrics, which always wrapped around the tune in an unusual way to me felt right in a new way.

My father gave me a labyrinth charm for Christmas. It is a Chartres labyrinth, so I carry the path with me now.

http://www.niu.edu/PubAffairs/RELEASES/2006/nov/Nowell.shtml

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A loving and beloved teacher at my school, a poet, saw the charcoal drawing I had purchased from a student. It is a self portrait, very large, her head fills the page, her eyes are wide, staring directly ahead, and her nose is bleeding black charcoal blood. After seeing it, he came back to my room and read a poem to me he had written about pain, about his symbiotic relationship to it. His voice was, as were his words, clear and strong and had so many tones.

We pray for Ferguson, we pray for FSU, where my niece held hands with strangers and huddled down for safety in the stacks of the library and heard shots set free the wounded and wounding soul of a man who came to kill students during finals week. We thought we were a post-racial society, but we are not, I thought FSU was dangerous because of the football players’ carte blanche, but it was dangerous for a different reason. Perhaps more than anything, I don’t want to outlive my nieces and nephew, and then  I think of Michael Brown’s mother.

The labyrinth in the rain is wet like a skinned knee and the turns remind me over and over, we are going back, we are going forward, we are in a different place.

Last week, my sister in law walked with me. She wore a light blue hood and a pale coat, and held steaming coffee in her hands. In my peripheral vision, and the meditative state that I drop into at the labyrinth, she reminded me of the Virgin Mary.  I remembered waking at the hospital  (I  had slept on a window sill) when my mother was dying and seeing my sister in law without recognizing her, as if in a vision. She had just come from her own shift at a neighboring hospital, and was in green scrubs. Who is this beautiful teen aged nurse with the golden ponytail, I haven’t seen her before, I asked myself before I recognized her. It was early in the morning  and the sun shone through the window I recall, for a moment, the greyness of the hospital and the fog of exhaustion and numbness which covered the fear and sadness were lifted. On the way back from the labyrinth to meet my brother and nephew at the playground, she and I talk over the nature of ritual.

At the labyrinth, I am in the shadow of a church where people gather to pray and focus on something higher than themselves. Just the action of gathering in prayer in good faith, praying for love, means that no action of violence or hurt is being set forth in that space, in that moment.