Peering Past the Red Velvet Rope

While vacationing in the Hudson River Valley, my husband and I toured Kykuit, Rockefeller’s lavish summer home; Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s modest cottage; and the Hancock Shaker Community’s very plain dormitories.

Mindful of the red velvet ropes and little fences that kept us from exploring/trespassing, we craned our heads around doorways, peered into corners, and tried to imagine the lives lived there. Despite the tour guides’ colorful stories, sometimes it was hard to breathe life into those rooms. Occasionally, my mind drifted, and I entertained myself by imagining what a future tour guide would say about my home after I’ve achieved some unspecified (and as yet unattained) notoriety.

No doubt, future tourists leaning across the velvet rope blocking entrance to my office will say, “Ooooh, that’s where Ellen used to write! There’s the honey locust she used to look at while she wrote, and there’s the sad clematis on the too-big trellis—remember her blog about defensive landscaping?” 

The tour guide might add, “To preserve historical accuracy, we left the pile of mail on the loveseat. Family stories mention that she used to let it ‘age’ for up to two weeks before she dealt with it.” Visitors will chuckle and some of the more avid ones will lean in to snap photos of the mail pile.

“And over there—a see the cat bed on the radiator? Her cat, Pinky, kept her company on cold Minnesota afternoons. Maybe he was even her muse as she struggled to revise her blogs and essays.” The tourists will jostle each other to take pictures of the cat bed.

The guide will probably point out, “Some of the furniture is antique—like the Mission style oak desk. Supposedly Ellen refinished it when she first moved to Minnesota years before she moved here for good. It was the only desk she ever used.” One of the visitors will probably sigh in appreciation. “We believe that she might have been sitting in that beat-up office chair when she received the call about winning the MacArthur Genius Grant/Nobel Peace Prize/Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes.” More clicking cameras and cell phones.

“Next, we come to the music room, where Ellen’s husband composed his opus . . . .” The tourists will dutifully shuffle across the hall to oooh and ah.

Advertisements

Traveling with Hispanics

Guatemala City, Guatemala. Heading home with Juan Jose’.

It started when Juan was eight months old. I was sure that at any moment, gun wielding policemen would climb aboard the airplane and snatch our baby from Jody’s arms. We were on the flight home from Guatemala. Everyone on the plane could tell Juan wasn’t our baby. We were white and he was brown. I was in terror that Juan could be taken away from us, even though he was legally ours.

This fear has continued, though it hasn’t stopped our family from traveling. Internationally, we have traveled four times to Guatemala and once to Mexico. In a week, we will be boarding a plane for our third trip to Florida.

Peten, Guatemala Juan Jose’ age 7

The fear starts about the time we book our flights, whether international or domestic. I start thinking of all the documents to bring: passports, adoption paperwork, name change documents, birth certificates, citizenship papers, and photos of us as a family. All the paperwork that will prove that Juan and Crystel are our children.

We have not been questioned or stopped at airport security. That hasn’t ended my heart from beating furiously as our passports are studied, then we’re looked over, and finally the returned gaze back to our passports.

Cozumel, Mexico Crystel age 10

Even Juan and Crystel have questioned their citizenship. The first time they asked, I was driving them home from grade school. “Are we citizens?” Crystel asked casually. She is usually the one who brings these types of things up. Juan just sits quietly next to her, listening intently all the same. Once we were home, I opened our lock box. Showed them their Certificate of Citizenship documents and the welcome letter from President Bush. I described to them how I had laid out a train of documents on the floor, ten in all, sent them in, to make sure that they would receive their citizenship.

Even though we’ve been on 7 flights, I’m still afraid. My latest fear is that Juan and Crystel could be separated from us and questioned. That would be traumatic for them. For all of us. And, isn’t it our job as parents to raise our kids with the least trauma possible?

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala Crystel Age 11

I was thinking about this with our upcoming flight to Florida. It came to me that there are two additional things that I could do. I could apply for TSA precheck and Global entry. That would be proof to security that Juan and Crystel have already been vetted and have proved their citizenship. I immediately applied online, received our appointments, and took them out of school to meet with the agency. As of this writing, I’ve been approved. Juan and Crystel have not yet even though we applied at the same time and were at the same appointment. Jody has been approved even though she filed several days after us.

Florida, Age 3

When the renewal comes up in 5 years, I hope that we can simply complete a renewal form and pay a fee.

I finished applying for Global entry for us this morning.

I don’t ever think that it will be easy for Juan and Crystel to travel our world for the simple reason that they are Hispanic. As their parent, I’ll do what I can for as long as I can to make it not traumatic. That’s my job.

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.

wellington

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.

mosaic-2

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

Wood Carving closeup.png

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve Never Been a Daredevil, But . . .

As I settled into my seat at the movie theater and muted my phone, an unwelcome thought sneaked in, “Is going out to the movies risky behavior?” I stifled it quickly, “A crazed gunman in the old-fashioned Edina Theater? That’s silly.” Worrying about my safety at movie theaters never used to cross my mind. I resent having to consider it now.

It’s disturbing to realize so many of the ordinary things I do put me in the kinds of places where mentally ill people or terrorists choose to murder and wreak havoc. However, I have no intention of curtailing my activities.

Shopping at malls – I don’t spend much time in malls, but while there, I have never worried about my safety. However, the shoppers in the mall in St. Cloud, Minn. or near Seattle, Wash. probably didn’t give it a second thought either.

Tutoring at the high school – I love the work I do tutoring adult immigrants and have never felt remotely threatened by any of them. The students I know are hardworking and determined to learn, get better jobs, and live the American Dream. But schools and colleges have been the scene of mass shootings in recent years. Perhaps I should be worried, but I refuse to be.

 Visiting international cities – I enjoy traveling overseas, but because of the history of terrorism in London, Brussels, and Paris, I will have to consider my safety in airports as well as in the cities themselves when I go. Losing my luggage or getting pickpocketed seem like more realistic threats than terrorism, but I can’t help being aware of the potential for an attack.

Often, public places happen to be the settings where a personal grudge is played out—I might not be the target—but I still could be injured or killed by a stray bullet. The issue is not that one middle class white person has to think harder about her safety. It’s that no matter who you are or where you live in America, you are at risk of mass shootings, because of our gun laws and cultural tolerance of violence.

Equally troubling is that zealots with knives, trucks, and bombs threaten people across the world, not just Americans.

I remain defiant. There are no easy solutions to gun violence and terrorism. But part of the solution has to be resistance—resisting the impulse to hide and resisting the impulse to shrug and say, “Oh well, what can you do?” We have to keep fighting for change.

Although terrorism and acts of mass violence are now part of our reality, I refuse to give in to fear. I’ve never been a daredevil, but I have no intention of giving up activities I love like movies, shopping malls, tutoring, or traveling.

Capturing the Moment

Since getting my iPhone, I’ve begun taking tons of photos, especially when I’m vacationing. During the nine days I was in Kauai I took 361 photos—mostly of scenery and quirky objects, occasionally of my companions.

Near Kilauea lighthouse

near Kilauea lighthouse

Tiny shrine under banyan tree at Hindu monastery

Tiny shrine under banyan tree at Hindu monastery

That’s about 40 per day. Why not? It’s fun. Taking pictures has become a way of heightening the experience. Documenting and remembering it. But sometimes I wonder: when I’m focusing and framing shots, am I more in the moment or less?

There’s something acquisitive about taking pictures.

Click. There. Now I’ve got it. This moment and this place are mine. I can revisit them whenever I want. I’m hoarding a treasure of memories. At some future point, seeing this vista, cool object, or time with friends may be just the tonic I need.

Of course I've got a beachy sunset photo -- it's Hawaii!

Of course I’ve got a beachy sunset photo — it’s Hawaii!

Initially, I might share a handful of photos on Facebook. Snap a funny scene and text it to a friend. After I return from a trip, I fuss with the photos in Photoshop, cropping them or adjusting the lighting. It’s a second way of enjoying the sights. Sometimes I create screensavers. Once in a while I make a printed calendar.

Surfboard fence in Hanalei

Surfboard fence in Hanalei

Having photos allows me to relive the good times. Except that after my first wave of enthusiasm, I rarely do.

Bird of paradise at Allerton McBryde Gardens

Bird of paradise at Allerton McBryde Gardens

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At least my photos are easy to store.

I’m grateful that I don’t have to deal with storing my collection. I think of the albums and boxes of pictures my parents had. Some of them are precious—that’s our history. My three siblings and I lined up in front of the tulip garden at Easter. There we are sprawled in swimsuits on the dock at Lake James.

But the photos from when my parents were in Hawaii? I’m glad they had the experience, but the images mean very little to me. I wasn’t there. I don’t know the stories. Is there any reason to save those prints now that my parents are gone? Similarly, my Hawaii photos won’t mean anything to my kids either. They weren’t there.

Fortunately, my fascination with photography doesn’t require much effort or upkeep. As long as I have loads of gigabytes, digital photos are easy to keep.

There’s one picture I didn’t take in Kauai.

In Hanapepe, they have a Friday night art gallery crawl. At 6:30, it was dark except for a few streetlights and the lights from shops. The air was cooling but the breeze was still gentle. A dozen shops opened their doors and a handful of food trucks gathered. Several musicians performed here and there—folk music and traditional Hawaiian music.

An old black pickup truck was parked under a streetlight. The front of it was painted with orange and yellow flames. Hot pink bougainvillea bushes were planted in the truck bed and they bloomed lavishly. Alongside the truck, a woman in a lawn chair was making leis.

I really wanted to take that photo, but it seemed wrong. Did I have the right to the photo if I didn’t want to buy the lei? Probably didn’t matter. People must do it all the time. That truck is meant to attract attention. Specifically, tourists’ attention.

After a while, she got up and shook some flowers from the tree behind the truck. Had a cigarette. A friend of hers stopped by with a brown bag of food.

I let the moment pass. It was too dark for my phone’s camera. It wouldn’t have seen all the color and details my eyes registered during the 20 minutes that I sat on the curb across the street from her eating spicy chicken curry.

I appreciate both kinds of images—the photos because they can trigger a story and the remembered images that have become vivid because I found the words to turn them into stories.

Both bring wonderful experiences to mind.