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.

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

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

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

prayers

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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.

Circling

Circling by Christopher Janney

Labyrinth-less-ness

It is 67 degrees and beautiful in PA, and 38 degrees in San Antonio. I am on my way to Texas for a presentation and am homesick for the labyrinth. A misunderstanding earlier in the day had scared me and in that moment of fear, my brain was filled with the labyrinth, almost exactly as the picture  describes…was this a reversal, a sudden twist in the direction I was going? Why would I be so surprised if it was? My meditation on the labyrinth must be working for it to invade my mind so fully in a moment of faux crisis.

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A colleague called me and began telling me of her sister’s stage 4 diagnosis of cancer and how quickly it had consumed, her, her health destroyed within weeks, her bones disintegrated. I remember the suddenness of the deaths of my own loved ones, sudden to me even for those who were gravely ill. I sit on the plane and scroll through photographs of the labyrinth and am cheered to see the stone church and the curly multi-colored flag that guards the labyrinth that I never write about but always enjoy.

Why did I misunderstand the text I received, innocent enough and meant to be a joke. Why couldn’t I hear the good naturedness of it, what is in me to expect a turn for the worst? How unexpected and marvelous is my new relationship with Paul.  Is the labyrinth reinforcing my belief in symmetry—that happiness will bring equally weighted sadness. Life is much more about the unexpectedness which I first felt with traveling the labyrinth.

The last time I walked the labyrinth, on one of my rare mornings when I am ready for work early,   I was at first struck by the simplicity of a path with no leaves crunching beneath me, and then by the beauty of the osage tree without its shady yellow leaves. I could see the delicate patterns the black bones of the tree made against the blue sky and was momentarily cheered that winter, although not as glorious as autumn, would still have some charm at the labyrinth and garden of St. Jude and the Nativity.  Currently, the church’s announcement board says “Get Rich Quick: Count Your Blessings”I

I have a stop over in Dallas. I walk out of the plane. Directly in front of me is CIRCLING An Urban Musical Instrument by Christopher Janney. A Harmonic Labyrinth. I walk it, trying to follow directions as the path is more open than in most labyrinths, the floor lights up as I walk and gentle sounds of gongs mingle with each other, with an occasional dog park or cow moo. I love the blue translucent walls, I always thought a labyrinth should have real walls. The walk reminds me once more that the symmetry is there but there is no sensation of symmetry, hence my theory on balance and happiness/sadness debunked, and rightfully so.

a walk in the rain

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http://www.clarityconceptsinc.com/
I found the above website for a consulting firm which used the Labyrinth as a tool for developing leadership and team building. It does not appear to be currently active, but it had been located in King of Prussia, PA, just down the road from me. I was looking for Labyrinth images.  It is interesting to think of the Labyrinth as a place where “Innovation is everything” (Robert Noyce).

My last walk on the labyrinth was in the rain. The rain forced me to look down and put one foot in front of the other and I once more was especially reminded of the grace and symmetry of the path, particularly in the center upper quadrant. The stones gleamed and there were puddles.  As I walked I recalled the dream I had had that morning. In the dream, I joined a theatre collective which was vibrant, yet had many rules, told to us by a small man with very long hair. I was involved but questioned my involvement. There was a lot demanded of me, but the rewards were great.  I slept in the dream amidst the members of the theatre company, but woke up alone, everyone was gone. I went outside where there had been an incredible amount of activity, and everything was gone, there was a cavernous scorched hole in its stead. Blackened roots of trees remained, but none of the many people or the sets or the lights or the costumes. Two young people, a man and a woman who looked like college students came in bicycles, I hid under a structure instinctively, which reminded me of a child’s slide (and must have appeared magically, as the landscape was entirely devoid of structures). The two surveyed the damage dispassionately. I saw that the man had a swastika on his t-shirt. I woke up.  As I walked recalling and shivering at the terror the dream inspired, I thought of my walks as meditations of impermanence. But they are no shield for all the dangers in the world.

I learned that the ‘shade tree’ which no longer provides shade is an osage.