Thursday, March 28, 2013


Today is Holy Thursday.  I feel as if I have done nothing during Lent to prepare for Easter.  Alas, it is not too late.  I have decided to use my desire to put my feelings into words as my Lenten offering.

I am a Catholic.  It's really getting harder and harder to own up to that.  But I do believe in and have an enormous amount of love and respect for God.  I'm sorry if that offends anybody.  It won't change and I'll accept it if you don't share this belief. I'm sure you have a very good reason for your choice as I do, mine.  About a billion of them, in fact.

I have had a Catholic education.  The best four years of my life.  I was educated by women who taught me to think, to accept, and to live a life in accordance with what I felt was morally right for ME.
I was not beaten into submission, tricked, or frightened into behaving.  The fires of hell were not part of our curriculum   My religious education paralleled that which I learned at home, mostly from my mother, a woman of great intelligence who also formulated her beliefs based upon what she felt in her heart and in her mind, not what any church or organized religion could impose.  That was a great way to grow up. We were not "Sunday Catholics".  Kindness and compassion were everyday lessons.

I am a Catholic by tradition.  I did not chose to be one.  I was born into the tradition and I am very tired of people making assumptions about what I believe, how I live, what I do in profession of my faith, and what other members of my organization profess to be true and righteous 

I have known many people of many different religious persuasions and have never had one problem becoming a friend to any of them.  It is and never has been my role to judge.  It is my role as a decent human being, to accept others and to always strive for a life of meaning.

I don't always attend Sunday Mass.  In fact, I only do if I really feel moved to or if I feel the need to play the good wife, accompanying my ultra-traditional husband.  I probably would attend another form of organized religious service were I on my own.  I often feel that I am doing something wrong when I profess that to him or his family.  Hmmm. As I write this, I wonder where all my courage actually goes sometimes   I am a people-pleaser after all is said and done.

Time has taught me that I am, indeed a believer, a highly functioning spiritual person.  I resent things that get in the way of that.  Oftentimes, Sunday Mass attendance does exactly that.  Stopping into every church in Italy has quite the opposite effect and I pray. I pray often. I attend Mass. I pray to God.  My prayers go directly to the one for whom they are intended. I've suffered one too many disappointment in the conduct of those who profess to know "the way" and I get more and more confused as I try to negotiate through all of that.

My veneer is wearing thinner and thinner as I read and hear of attacks on the "Catholics" as if we are stupid and unrealistic.  I'm getting more intolerant of being thought of as a moron for my membership.
I want to stand up and shout....."Hey, it's not the Catholic Church that you should blame!"....It's the people who hide behind the pillars of the church and pretend that they have a responsibility to limit human rights, that they are above all reproach and are safe and sanctified because they have been confirmed when they were twelve young years old.

Listen - every organized religion has "rules".  Every organized religion uses some form of scare tactics to get its members to conform.  We're just easy targets because there are so many of us.  We're not dangerous and we are not all predators.

I have one very special prayer for Easter.  I pray with all my heart that in some small way, perhaps I can be an example.  That I can be a leader. That I can influence people to do the best they can, every day of their lives. And, that if I do go down a wrong path once in awhile  I will not be sentenced by a jury of Sunday Catholics.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

You and Me and Billy

Any woman who shared a life with an older brother can tell you that there were "moments" during those years that were not always transported from the Hollywood set of the Danny Thomas Show.  But, in between the shin kicks and the day you came home to a viewing of your home movies in which you were the little naked five year old star, there were some very choice times. Those were the times when your big brother brought a real-life Ricky Nelson home from the ninth grade to play pool in your basement "rumpus room".  Those days by far outweighed the times when your brother tormented you by repeating every word you said....without stopping.....for hours.

I had only one big brother.  He was charismatic, smart and very ahead of his time.  He attracted friends like flies in a jar of honey.  Everybody loved Paul (I know how Raymond's brother felt) and our home provided an endless stream of cute boys and daydreams for little sister.

This is a true story. One of my favorites.  I tell it a lot and I love it.

One day, my brother came home with a new acquaintance.  He was a friend of his buddies, the Walsh boys of Valhalla. "Liz" Walsh became my friend and up until the time that we met, she was known as" Betty Lou".  I changed that and she's never gone back.  She had seven brothers and two sisters and spent a lot of time at our house as did her own older brother Bobby, my brother's best friend .

Billy. Tall, lean, dark hair, light skin and two of the hugest and most wide open sky- blue eyes that you have ever seen.  Holden Caulfield?  The Great Gatsby?  Definitely not in our league but my pal Janet and I accepted a ride in his car that first day he came around.  It was a big car, probably his father's.  They lived in Scarsdale.  We were so impressed but not as impressed as we were by Billy's driving skills.  He was the first person we ever knew who could turn his head, looking into the backseat as he drove. Very beatnik. Those big blue eyes were right on our plates and we were gone.  There was something very unique about that face and the mysterious owner.  Way cool. Suave and sophisticated. Driving the car and talking to the girls in the back seat. Full attention. Amazing.

Well, Janet was a real cutie.  Boys took one look at her and off they were to the moon with a one way ticket.  Big brown eyes.  Big blue eyes.  He liked her.  He came back again another day.  This time, he came with his own car, a little black M.G. The picture of perfection was now complete.  Once again,  Janet was there, at our house, filled with all the hope and desire a fourteen year old could allow herself to muster up in the sixties.  In other words, she was "smitten"......and I think he took her for a ride in his car while I stayed behind, wishing I was Janet.

Nothing ever came of this little romance.  It was amazingly short-lived.  I'm not even sure that Janet has any recollection of it.  I don't think we've ever talked about it and I really must remember to ask her the next time I see her.  Billy came, Billy wowed, Billy left and we both figured we'd never see him again. I don't know if he shared words with the big brown eyed love struck Janet. Maybe there was a chaste little kiss before he ran off.  We were, after all, just kids. We've grown up now, all of us but    for me, well Billy will be seventeen forever.


For the rest of the world, he would grow up to become Billy Collins, the Poet Laureate of the United States.  I just knew by his driving  that he was different and special and I have every one of his books of poetry to prove it.  Who knows, maybe there's one about my friend Janet somewhere in his collection.

For now, here's my current favorite........Someone else in his life is seventeen.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


In January and February of 2005, a public work of art hung in New York's Central Park.  The work, called "The Gates" was the creation of a husband-wife team of Bulgarian artists known as Christo and Jean-Claude. It consisted of 7,503 deep saffron colored nylon panels that spanned 23 miles and it was a sight to see, a real happening that invited thousands of us to become part of the art.  We were a work in progress and we strolled along with the realization that the gates opened up for us and led each of us to a different place in our minds.

I received a telephone message yesterday.  It was from my mother's cousin, the daughter of her mother's sister.  For years, my mother and her younger cousin kept in touch, each catching the other up on the lives that went on in between their phone calls. She had not been informed of her cousin's death and called to offer her condolences.  I sensed in her voice, a tiny bit of admonishment for not having called her with the news and found that disturbing.

The days have rolled into months and I often have to count back on my fingers to remind myself of how long it has been since my mother died. It's been eight months.   I miss her but not in an incapacitating way. I still have days when I am profoundly sad and tears come to my eyes at the slightest of provocations.  A phone call, a grocery list found in a pocket, a tube of half used lipstick, an array of weight loss guide books, a list of passwords for on-line shopping sights, a recall of those lunches we shared, each of us in charge of a pre-school child.  Splitting the bill on a "lunch special". The two times I witnessed my mother losing her balance and falling to the ground, humiliated at the degree of difficulty in regaining her stance.  The disappointments that I could have prevented.  The mother-daughter outings I failed to suggest as we aged together. The glimpse into the intimacies of her life that failing health and then death afford an only daughter. One by one, the thoughts drift in and out of my mind as if there was a series of gates, each leading to yet another.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

E Vai.....Francesco!

St. Francis Blessing to Brother Leo - May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the Lord show his face to you and have compassion on you. May He turn his face to you and give you peace.
Two days ago, when I wrote the blog piece on Tau and the Franciscans  little did I know, how could I ever have imagined, that the following day, the world would be celebrating the announcement of a new pope who would introduce himself as Francis after Francis of Assisi.  Wow!  

Normally, I am not a "Pope Watcher".  I hardly knew anything about Benedict. He wasn't  what one could call "endearing".  He was distant and what little I saw of him only made me think that here was a man who wasn't enjoying his job.  I was not heartbroken when his resignation was announced.

I would have loved it had the Cardinal from Boston made the cut.  That would have been a kick.  A Pope who was a Red Sox fan.  Imagine that one.   So,when I heard the news yesterday while in Boston, I was disappointed until......I spoke to my husband who told me that he will be called Francis and it all changed.  

I am a person who, when I like something, I LOVE it and I'm not afraid to show it.  I've always thought of myself as the personification of Ravel's "Pictures at an Exhibition".  I look at a beautiful piece of art and I burst.  I read a well-written story or hear a poem that is beautifully worded and my spirits soar.  I'm one of those who claps my hands when I am happy just as the little kiddie song suggests.  So, today, I am clapping my hands, listening to the news, looking at the photos of Francis (I can't stop saying the name) on the bus with the Cardinals, and I'm jumping out of my skin.  Francis.

His is named for one known for his humility, his piety, his casting off of all the trappings and his complete openness to universal dialog.  In 1939, he was proclaimed the Patron Saint of Italy.  The same man who embarrassed his father publicly when he tore off his clothes and ran dancing through the streets of Assisi!! The poverello.  I wonder if the ancient standers-by who gasped at the horror of that scene might have said, "no good can come of this".  Tee hee.

Four kilometers away, nestled in a 250 meter climb of Mt. Subasio, lies the exquisitely serene and beautiful Eremo delle Carceri.  It was a favorite place of contemplation and prayer for Francis and his followers.  It was there that he communicated with the animals. 

At the entrance, there's a big sign that asks that visitors observe a simple request:  Be silent.  

Why do I have a feeling that the silence has been broken, that there is a cacophony coming from the flapping of wings, the chirping of birds and the beating of warm hearts. 

Francis.  You earned the honor that has been centuries in the making and I'm flapping my wings in a way I have never. 

Pax et Bonum! (for some lovely videos of the Eremo)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Tau and Birkenstocks

This is the Tau.  It is the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet, according to some references and the nineteenth in the Greek, according to others.It is seen everywhere in Assisi, and I mean everywhere. I have lots of photos of the Tau cross and it has become for me, a reassuring sign, a constant reminder that St Francis really did exist and that what he started in the thirteenth century is still alive and well today.  Here a Tau, there a Tau, everywhere a Tau. The Tau was Francis' only signature.  He used it to mark places he had been. His own version of "George Washington Slept Here".

The Tau has become the symbol for the order started by St Francis, the "Franciscans".  Unlike the religious order of sisters started by his great pal St Claire, the brothers are by no means confined to their residences.  Instead, the Franciscans are out and about, interacting with people of all walks of life, all the time.  They are easily spotted in their brown habits and their Birkenstock sandals as they pop up everywhere in Assisi.
They seem to glide on air.  On windy days, their pointy hoods billow in the breeze and trail behind as if they were flying kites.  On cold days, those less macho are spotted sporting woolen caps, quilted vests and socks with the birks.  Those who have to wander further from their monasteries carry backpacks.They all have the same basic brown tunic, cinched at the waist by a rope-belt that is finished off by three large knots, each signifying an important rule of their order as it was handed down by the founder.  Poverty, chastity and obedience.  Simple and out there for all to see.  My friend who came to visit during my stay in Assisi, was fascinated by the friars.  He isn't Catholic and has had very little background in the faith.  He decided that they were cool and that they had very nice jobs.  I'm hesitant to ask about this year's Halloween costume.

In 2001, a woman named Elizabetta Bianchetti received an important commission.  She was employed by the company that is Italy's leading supplier of ecclesiastical clothing and she was asked to redesign the habit worn by 90 friars of the Third Order Regular.  And so, she did.  And so, the sky started to fall.  Elizabetta described the reaction to her change as "mediagenic" for it was debated, praised, and excoriated by the Italian press.  It was considered to be radical, something that never happens, not here!  What was the purpose?  Why the need?  What would Francis say?  What would the world think....Pockets!!!!!!  Two pockets.  What, one for keys and one for, lookout the sky is really falling.....a cell phone?

The new habit, as it turned out, did not go over in a big way.  The order for them was scaled down and I'm not quite sure just how many of the monks in Assisi actually own one of the radical new and improved Bianchetti designs.  Most of the higher-ups agreed that the garb designed by St. Francis in the thirteenth century transcended time and no changes would be easily embraced now....or ever.

Think about it.  Francis did just fine with his communications.  No cell phones, no text messages.  No locked doors.  No keys.  Two pockets?  Never going to happen.  The sky need not fall.

Monday, March 11, 2013

No Thank You

I found myself in  the beautiful and serene neighborhood that is home to the delicate Chiesa di Santa Margherita, on the Vicolo S. Andrea.  There's a little bench, possibly placed by generous residents for the use of passers-by who, astonished by the stunning area, might sit, as I did, to enjoy the view for a few moments before taking off for the Via Santa Croce, a higher elevation.

It was another of those incredible fall days,  The aroma of wood burning in fireplaces in the area homes permeated the air. The sky was sapphire blue but was already yielding to the soft shades of pinks and lavenders that signal the onset of the daily ritual which takes the sun from the glory of its peak to its return toward the open arms of the horizon.  The approach of the chill in the air reminded me that soon the days would be shorter.  But for now, I had nothing to do but stroll, fill my senses with the beauty and take note of each and everything I experienced for I knew that my time in the sun here was limited to just a few short weeks before I also would return to the horizon of my real life elsewhere.

As I gazed around, I noticed a tiny handmade sign. .It was hung from a rusty nail which projected out of a rock in a limestone wall, not far from the thoughtful bench.  The sign caught my fancy.  Si prega di non lasciare rifuti was the message, neatly hand printed on the wooden plaque, hung in plain sight so as to be noticed by all who came by. Please do not leave trash here was the sing maker's petition.  Here?  Who would mar this beautiful spot by the leaving of anything more than a footprint? I was so mystified by the need for the sign and so caught up once again in a moment of serendipity that I naturally snapped a picture, one of the hundreds that have served me so well in my memory of last fall.

Recently, as I scrolled through a batch of my beloved digitals, As I came across the photo, I thought about the lovely little neighborhood. A good, hard look at the picture allowed me to notice something I had not earlier,  something that made me smile, conjuring up in my mind a scene. At the bottom of the little sign, was the remnant of a word that had been, with great intention, scratched off.  The last word, "grazie". The one word that set the scene as I imagined it........

"Angelo, did you make that sign?"

"Yes.  I made it and hung it there last week"

"Why the message Angelo? Was there a problem?

"Yes, there was a problem.  I got tired of bending down every time I came out, to pick up trash left behind by people who came to sit on our bench"

"Angelo, I can understand why you asked that people "please" do not leave trash but Angelo, after that, why do you feel the need to end with thank you? It's like thank you for not littering.  Thanks for being civil and acting like a nice person. What's the matter with you my friend?"

"Okay, Leonardo, I'm going to scratch it off right now"

"Way to go Angelo! Thank you for not thanking anyone for not littering!  I'm going to sneak out here and scratch off the please part when you're not looking"

"See you tomorrow Leonardo"

"Tomorrow Angelo"

Saturday, March 9, 2013

And the Winner Is......

I've had some pretty great brushes with fame in my life.  Attended a black tie affair, not knowing that Bill Clinton was the guest of honor, shared a revolving door with the late and great Ed Koch one morning while entering my office building, shopped for chicken parts in the supermarket with Gene Wilder, sat at a table next to Isabella Rossellini at a dinner party - the list goes on and on.  I have been told that I have an uncanny ability for running into famous people in the most un-famous places. But......this one takes all.

Here I was at the Christmas Market in Verona and who do I follow for five minutes but the late and great Michael Jackson.  Yessiree.  There he was, head to foot.  Gloves.  White socks.  Black loafers.

He was real.  He was who he believed he was and he wasn't a street actor.

I think the vote is in.  He's the winner.  Serendipity.does.not.get.better.than. this.  Nope.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Serendipity Two


And it's another rainy, cold day so, instead of being unhappy, I chose to be happy in continuing my sharing of   some of my favorite times of unexpected, but welcomed joy

While on a stroll, what do mine eyes find, but an Italian gnome, peeking out of the window .  I wonder who lives in there?   Wouldn't it be funny if it's this lady? (she may also be a gnome)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013



The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.

The act of finding something valuable or delightful when you are not looking for it.

Also, the name of one of my favorite little restaurants on East 60th Street, the one with the frozen hot chocolate

Some people travel because they have a thirst for seeing places of historical significance.  Some, for the art, some for the music, a great many for the food and wine.  But I have to be very honest here. I travel for the experience of experiencing things first hand and, with all apologies to the historians and art lovers of the world, I get my kicks out of those delights that I often am fortunate enough to find at the exact times when, alas, I am not looking for them.  I'm a real, live, died-in-the-wool (whatever that means) lover of serendipity.  I breathe, sleep, eat, live and die for the opportunities to find things I am not expecting or not looking for.  The more out of context, the more unique, the more utterly off my chart that which I find finds itself, the happier I am.  These are the moments that I never forget.

The winter, even though the calendar tells us should be wrapping up soon, goes on.  It has been one of my least favorite.  I used to brag about my exceptional prowess with dealing with the rigors of The Old Man.  Loved snow.  Never complained about the cold.  Took winter walks.  As long as I did not have to drive, I was happy to sit and watch snow fall.  Used to strap on my cross country skis as quick as I could say "Jack Frost".  But, times have changed and I really hate these grey days and need to shift my focus to brighter things in life so, for a while, I am going to write about some of those  bright moments when, during my last trip to Italy, I allowed myself to become swept away and, camera in hand, recorded some of those serendipitous finds.  Maybe they only spoke to me.  It doesn't matter.  They spoke. They were not put in their places for my amusement but it was in their places that I found amusement or at the very least, something to think about - even better, something to talk about, even better, something to remember.

So, here goes, first installment........

Assisi, the home of Sts Francis and Claire.  The city of Brotherly Love.  Known for peace, acceptance.
Meticulous in every way.  Streets clean and safe at all times.  Hardly any graffiti anywhere (except for the ancient  and somewhat smutty alfrescoes in the Piazza Comune which we shall talk about later (after the kids go to bed). It really stopped me dead in my tracks the first time I came across this one.
"The poop (nice version) of the dog, is the mentality of the master"  In other words, curb your dog lest you will be perceived of as a shithead.......

Next, for something entirely different.
I was walking one morning and I heard birds chirping.  Looked up in the sky, no birds.  Looked for trees, none.  Listened better and decided to track it down.  My pursuit took me down a small vicolo which came to a plateau before the stone steps went down to a lower level.  This is the front entrance to a home.  Photo, untouched by human hands.  That yellow was the very color and the birds too.
It was such a sweet moment.  It made me happier than a bowl of Leonardo Da Vinci's ever could. Serendipity.  Ohhhhhhh.

And, then, there's this one...

Not quite what I expected on the train.  This isn't even this guy's native language.  Maybe he did not know what it meant?  Yeah, right.  It was actually my first of the serendipitous moments of this trip. Could not resist taking the photo.  Okay, so here's the thing....let's go back to one of those definitions of ser-en-dip-i-ty, noun:  

 The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way

Little did this nice young man know but his adorable sweat shirt saved my day, big time.
We were at the Terni train station, he and a group of his amici were exiting and I could hardly resist watching his rear end as it approached the door which led to the place where I had left my big suitcase so as to be courteous and not disturb my fellow passengers.  Had my eyes not been heading in that very direction, I might have missed the amico who was in the process of helping himself to my one and only piece of luggage, the one that held every single worthless thing that I would need for the next five weeks.  Nothing valuable, I'm way too much of a New Yorker for that mistake.  I actually had a good laugh when I thought of his disappointment had he opened the case, thinking that he would be sending the kids to camp on the contents.

Ah, serendipity.  My good friend.  Ci Vediamo.