To be alive

I’ve peered over the edge of life at death, wobbling between the known and the unknown.

2017 BandonBeach-best-HaystackLineup-vertIn my early 40s a cancer diagnosis dropped out of the sky and knocked me into a year of surgery, chemo and radiation. My heart carried the weight of the surgeon’s words, “I’m so sorry – this is a very bleak prognosis.” I couldn’t see a place for my plans or my hopes.

Still, I kept living. The chemo nurses, the oncologist, the radiologist all told me stories of patients who survived and surprised them. They were brave enough to look me in the eye and believe. My counselor, my friends, family and colleagues surrounded me with encouragement, optimism and grace along with a generous helping of realism. Gradually I let go of the heavy prognosis and reached for Emily Dickinson’s  “thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” The little bird of hope warmed my battered spirit and relit my eyes.

2017 BandonBeach-1PinkStar1Anen-vertNearly two decades later, I see every sunrise as a small piece of the future, gifted to me – the surprising survivor.

I’m posting photos of the beach because it’s one of my favorite places. It is so alive. The sand is different every day. The wind keeps me guessing. The water is every shade of blue and green, ever swirling back and forth. Gulls plead and bicker and huddle and hunt. Slashes of seaweed arrive with the tide. Fog slinks along abruptly engulfing huge crags of rock in a cascade of grey cotton. No wonder that on my last trip, when I took these photos, I looked out along the shore and saw a lone walker suddenly start clapping and jumping and laughing into the blustering gusts. It was a classic case of beach overdose.

The beach entreats my lungs to breathe deeply and feel her salty spirit. To remember that every day is a new birthing of time. For me, it is a place of restoration, to refresh my little bird. A place to be alive.

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These are a few of my favorite things

20160907-london-brochures-cashTraveling to London is like visiting an old friend – someone I’ve long wanted to get to know better. Each time I see the grand lady, I discover another aspect of her history and culture. Oh, I see her flaws, such as when her motorists yell at me for

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Cambridge

daring to step on the crosswalk, or when I’m nearly mowed down by serious-faced, very fit commuters streaming into or out of the tube. In her midst I’ve had many days in September when she drops a load of heat and humidity on me and pretends she’s Rome. (Did I mention there’s no air conditioning in the tube? Oh yes, so I did.)

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Bath: Think I’ll sit right down and knit myself a bicycle…
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Drama ducks at the British Library
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Cappuccino!

 

 

 

 

 

 

My first visit to Rome is like discovering a stylish and fascinating friend of the family who is somewhat unpredictable and who has a lot of skeletons in the closet. Some days he is so intriguing I love being with him, other days I

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Walking through history in Ostia Antica

wish we’d never met. But in the end, I am fascinated and decide to keep him. He doesn’t believe in air conditioning either, but then I encounter another of his treasures or I experience one of his cleansing rainstorms and I forgive him.

Each city gave to me and took away. Both the gifts and the challenges added to my life because, as Robert Hughes says about Rome, “It makes you feel big, because the nobler parts of it were raised by members of your own species.” Amen.

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Mellow moments in Frascati
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Breathtaking sculpture

Roman soundscape

2016-rome-clouds-after-rainI’m a rain enthusiast. Not a die-hard, in-your-face fan because there is such a thing as too much rain. More of a devotee of the finer features of rain. It probably comes of growing up in the Pacific Northwest in Vancouver and Victoria, B.C., and then living in both Portland, Ore., and the Seattle area. Most of us here understand the nourishing role of rain and all it does for our outdoor living rooms. Matt Love, an Oregon author, wrote a quirky, meandering little book entitled Of Walking in Rain. Naturally I bought it and splashed along with his writings, mostly based on life along the Oregon coast where the rain is prodigious and ubiquitous. Reading about rain or walking in it are what devotees of rain are apt to do when they are not perusing catalogues of rain-repellant and waterproof clothing and hats while sipping a hot drink.

Anthony Doerr writes in his memoir about his first storm in Rome when “the lightning lashes the domes2016-09-19-frascati-countryside-golden-hour of churches” and “hail clatters on the terrace.” After the onslaught, he notices what I do during my visit. “In the early morning, the air seems shinier and purer than I’ve seen it.” I suppose it’s the drama of rainstorms that appeals to my writer’s heart, bringing the humidity to a climax while the serene aftermath becomes a glowing denouement.

2016-09-18-rome-tiber-stormy-skyRome offered me its own stormy rain encounters. Like the city, rain is a full-immersion experience. The rain performance is usually supported by two reliable character actors. The distant voice of thunder rumbling its complaints to the mountains. Lightning stabs the air with flashy whispers, startling the sky wide open. Then, flowing onstage, water descends from cloud to street, thundering along in its own running of the bulls along the cobblestones.

What I love the best is the Roman sky after the rain, a glimmering, glorious, fresh-washed blue still fraught with clouds of all hues from white to black. Standing in the lane I watch as the sun reappears and wakes the dark, wet stone. The air somehow sounds clean.

(Feature photo at top: Storm clouds gathering over Rome, as seen from Frascati.)

To wash or not to wash, that is the question

I have a complicated relationship with international plumbing. Being an optimist who lives in the U.S., I expect it to be predictable and reliable. When traveling, I am often deeply disillusioned.

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Before arriving in Rome, my study abroad group spent a week in England. I did not anticipate or receive frills at our London student-oriented accommodations. However, the basics, I hoped, would include functioning plumbing. In this I was to be disappointed. (Here I must point out that one can be in far more upscale British lodgings and have unhappy plumbing experiences.)

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St. James Park, London

The first shower stall I tried had a large button for the water. Being a practical optimist, I press the button before entering the stall and twiddle with the temperature control until comfortable. I hop in and suds up, only to find that the water is on a timer and stops after a couple of minutes. No problem. I hit the button again. Aaaagh! The restart blast is ice cold. The stall being a very economical size, I take it on the chin whilst the water slowly warms. Next day, I select another stall without a timer button. Progress! The water offers a bracing blast. I hop in, suds up, and realize the water is getting hotter and hotter. More twiddling with the temperature control gets it to a bearable point, but I exit feeling like a boiled fish. Never mind, I tell myself, things will get better.

In Rome, we stay in rental apartments. The bathroom is definitely a few steps up. Time

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Piazza del Popolo

for a shower. On goes the water – I’ll be generous and call it a gentle stream. Temp is OK but the removable shower head is hanging precariously on its holder and any touch causes the flow to redirect unpredictably. Under the trickle, I suds up. Pffft … the water reverses course and splutters out of the back of the shower head while shampoo is dripping into my eyes. As I turn to investigate, bam, down falls the shower head, never to hang above my head again that morning. It hits my noggin on the way down and I nearly fall.

Happily, I do not end up wedged in the bottom of the nicely tiled but frugally sized shower, naked and unlovely as a 60-something jaybird, trying to communicate with Italian paramedics. A new shower head is later installed that points directly at the wall, and all is well.

Discovering Frascati

2016-frascati-hilly-lane-in-townFrascati is a 25 minute train ride from Rome and worth every minute. It is one of several historic towns in the hills outside Rome known as the Castelli Romani. We tour the medieval part of town with Dominique of The Old Frascati Winery, who is a delight. So much history packed into narrow cobblestone streets.

Then we hop into taxis and travel further up into the hills to the vineyard and winery. It is three acres of viney landscape perched on a ridge overlooking Rome in the distance. The grapes seem to be flowing everywhere and will be harvested the next day. It is late afternoon – the2016-frascati-grapes4 golden hour – and storm clouds are brooding over Rome. I cannot stop taking photos and thinking about Anthony Doerr’s soaring prose about the light in Rome: “It drenches, it crenellates, it textures.”

2016-09-15-frascati-wine-dogOur taste buds discover Frascati wine and are thrilled. Though I’ve never done it before, I buy two bottles to bring home in my suitcase, plus two bottles of the best olive oil ever. (All four make it home without breakage, much to my relief.)

Back down in the town, we have a chatty outdoor dinner, Frascati style. We buy hefty porchetta sandwiches from the local bakery then head over to the quaint outdoor bar to buy some liters of

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Rome in the distance

wine. Locals are there too, grouped at wooden picnic tables, streams of Italian floating up above the cobblestones.

Heading back to Rome on the train, all our senses are satiated. My memory bank is full to the brim.

https://www.oldfrascati.com

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An ocean of color

20160913-vatican-museum-entryWhen I think of paintings as works of art in a museum, what comes to mind is something in a frame. However, I expanded my horizons on this point when in Rome. Many fabulous works of art live on walls. Through the ages in Italy, fresco was the chosen medium for many wall murals, including the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican. Of all the stunning art in the Vatican, this was my favorite. As I walked, in the guards opened all the windows through the hall allowing golden afternoon sunlight to spill in and mix with the blues and greens of the maps. I felt as though I was in an ocean of color.

One of our fellow travelers is an artist with a fine arts degree and she gave a presentation on paint types available to artists through history. Oil paint as a commonly used medium is relatively new, gaining popularity with artists in the 15th century. Before then, artists used tempura – made of pigment, water and egg yolk – or fresco – made of pigment, water and limestone. Both dry very quickly and fresco is an especially challenging vehicle for artistic expression.

The gallery came about because Pope Gregory XIII wanted to explore Italy but did not want

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One detail from one map

to leave the safety of the city. (Hmmm – wonder why?) So he commissioned maps to be painted at the Vatican, and got a glorious set as long as a football field. The artists who painted them had to be masters of the craft because of the short drying time.

If you ever go to Rome, don’t miss the Vatican and be sure to reserve time for the gallery. With the maps recently restored to their earlier glory, you might even agree with me that it’s more lovely than the Sistine Chapel.

Read about the restoration of the Gallery of Maps.

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Walk through the Vatican Museum to get to the Gallery of Maps

The Pantheon as inspiration

Ever wonder where architects get their ideas for imposing buildings? As I toured London and Rome, I began to realize that plenty look to the Pantheon for inspiration.

First up, the Pantheon’s facade. Imposing. Amazing. About 1850 years old and still going strong. A building to be experienced.

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Then the British Museum. No mistaking that facade.

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Oh, and how about the entrance to Buckingham Palace? A bit more subtle but the basic design is there.

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Even the National Gallery in London has the Pantheon look.

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The 18th century building that houses the Roman baths in Bath, England has a lovely dome with an oculus-style window at the top.

 

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Bringing it closer to home, the U.S. Supreme Court bears a strong resemblance.

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One building. Two thousand years. Many emulations.

 

Walking through a metaphor

Edith Wharton’s story Roman Fever packs a punch, but not until readers are floating quietly in the midst of a character study and the interior dialogue of one individual. The entire short story is woven together in such a way that when the last line arrives it is like suddenly seeing the design after all the rows of dominoes fall down. I love the plot structure, where the climax is at the end and blows the story out the window. It offers shadows of Flannery O’Connor without the in-your-face brutality.

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Roman Fever is a tale of ruins and ruination, where two well-preserved women spend an afternoon at a restaurant overlooking the Forum. Our travel group also spent an afternoon at the Forum, roasting in the hot sun as we hiked around acres of remnants of a world power. In ancient times, it was the center of Roman life but now is a well-preserved archaeological site. A shadow of its younger self.

2016-rome-forum-churchAlida Slade emanates energy and misplaced ambition while Grace Ansley is quieter and more traditional. Or is she? Alida seems to encircle Grace with her interior thoughts and judges her inferior. That’s the trouble with ego-driven thinking – it blinds the egoist to truth. Together yet orbits apart, the two women sit with the shadows of their past and the ruins of their dreams. It is not until the conclusion that I understand who is more at peace with her choices.

It seems no mistake that Wharton chose this particular setting for her story and I love it all the more because I’ve been to the Forum and understand the metaphors experientially.

The Pantheon: Truly Roman architecture

2016-09-15-rome-pantheon-doors“When you see the Pantheon for the first time, your mind caves in. You walk through the gigantic doorway and your attention is sucked upward to a circle of sky. A filtering haze floats inside; a column of light strikes through the oculus and leans against the floor. The space is both intimate and explosive: your humanity is not diminished in the least, and yet simultaneously the Pantheon forces you to pay attention to the fact that the world includes things far greater than yourself.” Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome

No description is adequate for the Pantheon. It is a first-person experience. Without a special lens, it is difficult to get a photo of even one half of the interior because of its scale. The Romans were able to build it, and many other structures, because

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Just one part of the interior of the Pantheon

of their particular type of concrete. (See my earlier post.) Built in about 125 C.E. (A.D.) it replaced an earlier temple that burned in 80 C.E. It is thought to have been a temple to all of the gods, and was later the first Roman temple converted into a church. In 609 it became Sancta Maria ad Martyres, as rededicated by Pope Boniface IV, and remains an active church today. As I walked around and looked up, my awe was tinged with a spiritual hue.

“It is the form of the Pantheon that elicits one’s amazement: that huge dome, opened to at the top by an oculus which seems not merely to show but to admit the sky, is a landmark in the history of construction and, one might add, of architectural metaphor….This is truly Roman architecture.”  

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The oculus – too big for my camera lens

 “No modern architect would dare to attempt another Pantheon using the same structural principles – nobody would insure it. But the Pantheon has stood for nearly two thousand years and shows no prospect of collapse.” Robert Hughes, Rome

Hughes says the dome design relies entirely on mass and is “the world’s largest in unreinforced concrete.” The dome has a diameter of 43 meters (143 feet), and the distance from the floor to the oculus is the same – visually, about the length of half a football field. The oculus – a round opening at the top of the dome – is the only source of natural light in the building. When I looked up, it appeared to be about 5 feet across, but in reality measures about 28 feet, the length of a double-decker bus.

The entry doors are 21 feet high. The outside granite columns are 39 feet tall and weigh in 2016-rome-pantheon-sheepat 60 tons each. The inside columns are more than 32 feet tall and each has a heft of 25 tons. You get the idea: it is HUGE.

And yet … in this massive edifice at the foot of a saint I found a small, vulnerable lamb with an uncertain look on its face. A tiny symbol of vulnerability inside a giant metaphor of strength.

 

 

Cream puff clouds in Ostia

2016-09-11-ostia-beach-glowing-cloudsAfter we explored Ostia Antica, the forgotten city, we hopped back on the train and went a couple more stops to the modern Ostia, a seaside suburb of Rome. We wanted to stick our swollen, suffering feet in the Tyrrhenian Sea and eat wonderful Italian food. A few blocks from the train – with a quick stop for gelato, of course – it was a little weird to see the entire seafront fenced off and divided into sections, each portion controlled by a bar, a restaurant, or some other business that regulated access to the ocean. We found a bar, bought some drinks and wandered down through the cigarette-butt-infested sand to the water. (Did I mention that people smoke outside in Rome – everywhere – and toss their butts all over the ground? They do.)

Still, the atmosphere was much mellower and less crowded than Rome. Our group wandered up and down on our little patch of shoreline, sporting ever-larger smiles, watching cream puff clouds billow on the horizon. Once my feet were in the 2016-09-10-ostia-plate-musselssea, all was well. Later, we feasted on pasta and seafood supplemented by sparkling water or wine as we felt inclined, and laughed our way through the evening.

The day bid farewell by treating us to the most glorious sunset. It went through several phases, ending in flares of purple, pink and grey that rivaled the art of masters. Following the sky show, I didn’t even mind riding back to Rome on a graffiti-blasted train.

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“I never tire of the clouds here, the light bleeding through their shoulders.” Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.”  Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds