Mom’s Inspiration

For years, my mom had a clipping stuck on her refrigerator with a magnet.

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Although it was in a semi-public place, the clipping was a private message for her, not a directive for the family and friends who might see it.

Mom knew she’d be in and out of the refrigerator numerous times a day. She probably hoped that by putting the clipping right there she’d be forced to notice it. At least once a day, she’d really see the words and be reminded of her intentions. Every day, she could rededicate herself to the effort of becoming her best self.

As a visitor, I saw it often but never thought too hard about it. They were her goals, not mine, and Mom wasn’t in the habit of preaching about her values or goals.

But when the clipping turned up in a box of Mom’s things that my sister had saved, I realized how much her example has influenced me. I, too, regularly rededicate myself to the effort of being my better self.

I make New Year’s resolutions (often the same ones about health and writing – they’re still good, because I frequently stray from my goals). Throughout the year, I also take stock and evaluate whether or not I’m living the life I want to live. For example, I might ask myself: Am I too bizzy with household tasks that don’t matter? Am I letting other people’s agendas overtake my own? Can I be more tolerant and easygoing and let go of irritation faster? Am I pushing myself creatively? And more.

My refrigerator is bare. Unlike Mom, I keep my resolutions and inspirations in journals or in the Notes app on my phone where I see them often. When I reread my intentions, I’m pleased to see that I’ve followed through on some. Others, not so much. But I’m easy with myself – effort counts. I’m a work in progress and I just need to keep trying.

Mom’s clipping lists five goals. I love that she circled the two that were most meaningful to her. As her daughter, I can tell you that most days, she nailed them.

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Be Safe. Don’t Die.

img_1806Be Safe. Don’t Die.

I was half way out the door when I heard, “Be safe. Don’t die.” It was Crystel’s voice. I cringed. She was 12-years-old. I thought of turning around to tell her not to say that. That it would be ‘nicer’ to say, “I love you.”

I paused. She was sincere. I didn’t say anything.

Instead, I asked myself backing out of the driveway, “Why am I uncomfortable? That it’s true? That at any moment I could die, be in a car accident, be shot in an airport, or fall on the Minnesota ice?”

Be safe, don’t die, has all the realness one can ask for in an adieu. It means, “I want to see you again. It means, don’t leave me. It means, I want you to come home.”

Jody remembers that it was after Crystel saw the movie, “If I Stay,” that she started saying, “Be Safe, Don’t Die.”

img_1808It was as if she understood that death happens. That people could leave their home and their life could forever be altered.

In the movie, life changes in an instant for Mia after a car accident puts her in a coma. During an out-of-body experience, she must decide whether to wake up and live a life far different than she had imagined. The choice is hers if she can go on.

Crystel is 14 now. She’s still telling me and her other family members to be safe and not to die. I find this comforting. She wants me around. She doesn’t want me to disappear from her earth. “Be safe. Don’t die,” has all the fondness of an “I love you.”

Now, Jody and I also tell her, “Be safe. Don’t die.” Our way of telling her that we love her.

A New Year Blessing

This poem by Celtic poet John O’Donohue  has touched me each time I’ve seen it recently, so in that spirit, I’m sharing it with you–

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A New Year Blessing

On the day when

The weight deadens

On your shoulders

And you stumble,

May the clay dance

To balance you.

And when your eyes

Freeze behind

The grey window

And the ghost of loss

Gets into you,

May a flock of colours,

Indigo, red, green

And azure blue,

Come to awaken in you

A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays

In the currach of thought

And a stain of ocean

Blackens beneath you,

May there come across the waters

A path of yellow moonlight

To bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,

May the clarity of light be yours,

May the fluency of the ocean be yours,

May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow

Wind work these words

Of love around you,

An invisible cloak

To mind your life.

© John O’Donohue

Great Cathedrals: Power, Greed and Inspiration

When my husband and I travel in the United Kingdom or Europe, we always visit some of the great cathedrals. That may seem odd, since neither of us is very religious. But cathedrals like St. Paul’s in London embody history, politics, and faith in a very visceral way and I’m very interested in history. The experience encompasses the best and worst of human nature.

The Shock and Awe of Churches

The architects and benefactors of great cathedrals intended to create a dramatic impact. And St. Paul’s does. The cathedral is an architectural marvel. The main aisle of cathedral goes on and on—while standing at one end of the church, I can see the other end, but just barely. The arched ceiling and dome soar high above the seats. Everywhere I look there are intricate decorations and many are covered with gold. I immediately feel small and insignificant in face of all the space and history, but that feeling gives way to a faint unease.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons furnished this photo of the nave. Tourist photography isn’t permitted in the church.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons furnished this photo of the nave. Tourist photography isn’t permitted in the church.

Sightseeing in a Place of Worship

Though I’m no longer a practicing Catholic, that upbringing is ingrained in me. It feels odd to see the whole gamut of tourists wandering around snapping photos (where permitted), peering at inscriptions on statues, ducking into alcoves, zigzagging across aisles in front of the pulpit and behind the altar, talking and pointing. There’s something distasteful about it, although obviously, I’m a tourist doing the same thing.

The premise of sightseeing in church is complicated. Many cathedrals charge admission and I assume the money helps maintain the building. Perhaps the religious authorities are also trying to give ordinary people access to a beautiful and potentially inspiring place.

Tijou gates - Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons

Tijou gates – Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons

Incredible Excess

Cathedrals like St. Paul’s, the duomos in Florence and Siena, and St. Peter’s in Rome, all contain elaborate decorations—intricate mosaics, detailed wood and stone carvings, painted frescoes, golden candlesticks, chalices encrusted with jewels, lavishly embroidered altar cloths. The excess is fascinating but off-putting. I think about all of the money invested, perhaps for the glory of God but also as a demonstration of the power and wealth of the church, whether Anglican like St. Paul’s or Catholic like St. Peter’s in Rome. At first I am awed by the gilt and filigree, but then reminded of the greed, intolerance, and corruption that religious institutions have displayed historically.

Politics and Religion Are Intertwined in St. Paul’s

St. Paul’s was originally built as a Catholic church in 604. In 1087, it was demolished by fire. Rebuilding began in 1087 and the church was reconsecrated as a Catholic church in 1300. The Protestant Reformation, begun by Martin Luther in 1517, in response to the corruption in the Catholic Church, swept through Europe. In 1534, King Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church and established himself as head of the Church of England, so he could marry Anne Boleyn.

Politics and religion remained intertwined and turbulence continued in England until the 1660’s. During this period, St. Paul’s fell into disrepair and was used for a variety of things, including a marketplace. In 1666, King Charles II commissioned architect Christopher Wren to rebuild St. Paul’s, but the Great London fire destroyed the church and work was delayed until 1669. The church was completed in 1710. Now an Anglican church, the new St. Paul’s reflected the politics of the day.

In the dome is a mural with scenes from the life of St. Paul. It was painted in muted colors—a departure from the colorful decoration in Catholic churches. Statues and imagery of saints and angels is limited, in keeping with Protestant philosophy. Instead, statesmen like the Duke of Wellington and Admiral Lord Nelson are ensconced in huge lavish crypts. St. Paul’s remained a more somber looking place until the 1890’s, when Queen Victoria declared that it was dreary and uninspiring and asked to have mosaics installed.

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Wellington monument – Photograph by George P. Landow (http://www.victorianweb.org/ sculpture/ stevens/29.html)

The influence of politics is evident in the lavish decor, which speaks of wealth and power of the monarchs, the Church of England, and England itself. It’s also obvious in the inclusion of statues of political figures instead of religious figures.

I dislike the dichotomy and wish it could simply be an inspiring place of worship. But then I recall the way thousands of people flocked to St. Paul Cathedral at the end of World War II and realize that for many ordinary people, the cathedral is a spiritual place as well as a national symbol.

God in the Details?

Then I focus on the decorative details and think of the craftsmen who spent years setting tiny tiles to create the mosaics. Or the woodcarvers who labored and fussed over the leaves in the choir stall borders. Or the metalsmiths and artists who made the Tijou gates and the chalices. Hundreds of artisans throughout the church’s history worked to create something important and lasting. I want to believe that devoting years and years of their lives to the work was an expression of their faith. Thinking of the craftsmen restores my appreciation for the cathedral.

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Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0 Detail of quire (choir) mosaics.

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Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0. Detail of wood carving in choir stalls.