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We are home now – first stop Chick-fil-A, second stop washing machine, third stop Zaxby’s.

Home.

It’s still a miracle, really. Will I ever stop feeling the wonder at being in Mexico City at breakfast time, then home in time for lunch? I doubt it, and I don’t want to. It is a wonder, I’m grateful for it even as I feel a sense of unease at the sense of obligation it brings. Previous generations had it so hard and produced such beautiful, truthful things. I have it so easy, I have so much more time…what am I doing with it?

A question that weighs especially heavily after experiencing the highs – and in a more limited way – the lows – of a country like Mexico.

So, back to Saturday morning.

It did not begin well. Montezuma got me, and I can’t figure out where we met. Nothing but bottled water touched my lips. I didn’t have any fruits or vegetables that might have been washed in the preceding days. The only thing I can figure out is that Friday morning, we had breakfast and I had juevos awash in mole – I didn’t eat it all (they just drown things in mole sauce (why???), and to my palate it’s definitely overkill) – but I think that the little bit I did consume might have been it. Perhaps the mole had been reconstituted with local water and not heated at a high enough temperature to Kill Things. I don’t know. I do know it was miserable for a few hours there.

It took the morning for me to (mostly) recover. I sent the boys out a couple of times to wander, buy churros – whatever – just go. And they kept coming back like fifteen minutes later. Why are you here?

I took solace in the fact that if I, indeed, couldn’t get going at all that the Puebla centro is safe and interesting enough that they could, if seriously threatened, spend the whole day out there themselves, without me. (they’re almost 17 and 13, remember). There was a movie theater, too, if things got desperate.

But by about 11:30, I was confident enough of my system that I decided that our original Saturday plan could happen, albeit later than planned: Cholula.

Cholula is a neighboring town, but really, driving there, it seems more like a suburb. It’s six or seven miles away, but there’s no empty space between the two. The reason for going is this: what they think is probably the biggest pyramid, by volume, in the world.

Except you can’t see it!

For it’s under a hill and on top of the hill sits a church.

You can read about the pyramid here – in case you don’t know the reasons the MesoAmericans, particularly in central Mexico, could build their pyramids to such a great size is that they periodically enlarged them by building over them every few decades.

So, we Ubered it over there, startled by the immensity of the church-topped hill right there, with the town spread out around it. The driver let us out at a plaza lined with food and gift stalls, filled with visitors (it was Saturday, remember!) and in the middle of which were voladores, ready to take flight.

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What are voladores?

 The ritual ceremony of the Voladores (‘flying men’) is a fertility dance performed by several ethnic groups in Mexico and Central America, especially the Totonac people in the eastern state of Veracruz, to express respect for and harmony with the natural and spiritual worlds. During the ceremony, four young men climb a wooden pole eighteen to forty metres high, freshly cut from the forest with the forgiveness of the mountain god. A fifth man, the Caporal, stands on a platform atop the pole, takes up his flute and small drum and plays songs dedicated to the sun, the four winds and each of the cardinal directions. After this invocation, the others fling themselves off the platform ‘into the void’. Tied to the platform with long ropes, they hang from it as it spins, twirling to mimic the motions of flight and gradually lowering themselves to the ground.

It was interesting to see, although I don’t think “fling” describes the actions I saw. More like, “sit suspended and slowly start spinning while your hat-holding companions work the crowd below.”

I’m not going to recreate the next hour or so of activity step by step. Just know it involved: Seeing a huge line to enter the tunnel that’s been excavated through the pyramid. Getting the very clever idea that since we knew there was a museum associated with the pyramid, we’d avoid the line, get tickets for the experience at the museum and do that first. Getting ice cream. Going to the wrong museum. Going to the right museum, but being told we had to buy tickets at the tunnel entrance. Senora. Gracias. Waiting in line for thirty minutes (me sitting on a bench next to a rotating series of old Mexican men and women) to buy said tickets. Going through the tunnel.  Coming out the other side. Climbing up the hill to Our Lady of Remedies. Praying for just that. Very convenient. Climbing down and, knowing that we were on the complete opposite of the museum, saying, “forget it,” and heading into town instead.

With Mom fighting cramps every time her body changed position, it seemed. Which, you know, when you’re walking around, happens a lot.  Which explains why “forget it” is not exactly what she said in her head when understanding where the museum was in relation to where she ended up.

In all seriousness, it is an amazing sight, even though it’s a hill – for you know that under the hill lies an enormous pyramid and there you are on top of it with Our Lady of Remedies. The church is a lovely bright yellow, and it really does dominate the landscape of the town. In fact, as we left Puebla on Sunday, our bus drove on the highway several kilometers north – and I could see it from there.

Incidentally, Our Lady of Remedies, along with many other churches in the Puebla state, especially in and around Cholula, were heavily damaged in last fall’s earthquake. We saw a great deal of evidence of that – turrets and other features piled beside walls and so on.

 

What absorbed me most, though, was  the families. It’s not as if it were the first time  – in Mexico, that’s what you see most of – families, and most of the time, it’s multi-generational. Grandparents, parents, and children climbing the hill up to the church, waiting in line to enter the church, sharing a picnic, gathered at the top of the pyramid, under the shadow of Our Lady of Remedies. Little ones slung their buzzing, clacking toys around and wept at their dropped paletas, parents bounced babies in slings and grandparents, their stature usually about halfway between their children’s and grandchildren’s,  pointed out the features in the town spread out below and the volcanoes in the distance.

Deciding that our time in the two Archeology museums in Mexico City had probably been enough, we wandered into Cholula – as is the case with all Mexican towns, blocks of brightly painted buildings lined the streets and this being Holy Saturday, it was hopping. We did a bit of souvenir shopping, then found the Zocalo where we settled in for some lunch at a stand, then shopped a bit more – there was an extensive book section under the tent, and I bought several easy versions of classics in Spanish – probably 3rd-5th grade – the Iliad, The Invisible Man and a collection of Poe stories. We’ll see how serious our burgeoning MesoAmerican naturalist/scholar really is about learning Spanish, won’t we?

I then followed the lead of this blogger, found a taxi, and asked him if he would take us to two churches on the outskirts off Cholula and then back to Puebla – he agreed ($300 pesos was his price – about $15).

The churches?

First, St. María Tonantzintla. I got up at 4:30 am, and I’m tired, so I’ll let the other blogger fill you in:

Santa María Tonantzintla was constructed in the 17th century as a church for the local indigenous people. As was typical in Mexico, the local people incorporated many of their own beliefs into their religious symbols. This fusion produces a style which some refer to as “indigenous baroque”.

The church has a yellow body, but is nicely set off with red tile. The front ornamentation is rather simple, with figures of St. Peter, St. Paul, and the Virgin Mary enclosed in niches along the front. The overall look is very pleasant.

It’s the inside where things get more interesting. A riot of figures cover every surface. The impact is stunning, your eyes are drawn over and over the surfaces, examining the many details. You can see children, birds, angels, flowers, and many other symbols. All are painstakingly crafted from plaster, then carefully painted or gilded.

I’ll go further than he does about the exterior – it’s not just “pleasant” – it’s distinctive and singular. The interior is as he describes it, and, as he continues – you aren’t allowed to take photographs inside. The people sell photographs and postcards and even a small book, and really, why not support them in their dedication to their own parish?

 

Our Cathedral rector traveled to this church a few years ago and snapped some interior photos after celebrating Mass – enjoy! 

Just a mile away is San Francisco Apatapec, fascinating and even startling because it’s so different than the first church – yes, the commonalities in structure indicate a proximity in construction, but instead of red tile, the second church is adorned with Talavera tile. I was a little restricted in photography because they had set up a tent that reached from the front door to the courtyard opening – I couldn’t get a good long view but I think you get the sense of it. Click on photos to get a larger version.

 

 

Aren’t they amazing?

And note – these are not located in the midst of grand cities or wealthy neighborhoods. What surrounds them may not be squalor, but it’s not a gated community either. It’s hardscrabble small town Mexico.

And of course, we were popping in on Holy Saturday afternoon, remember. Both churches were busy with preparation – people were dusting, scouring, trimming and arranging flowers. So here you have it: Beautiful – no, stunning – churches that are not imposed on or extracted from the sufferings of the poor by authoritarian hierarchs, but stand tall, rather, as expressions of the people’s love and worship of God, exploding with hope and trust in the Beauty that waits for them.

As I said…flight was at 7 am, which meant a 4:30 am wake-up. Thank goodness we were in an airport hotel. I might still be in Mexico City if it were otherwise. I’ll post on the rest of Saturday tomorrow. On Tuesday. Got it?

I’ll violate my general aversion to putting video on the blog (because you can’t resize them)  by sticking this one of the voladeros here:

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For those of you who haven’t been reading this week – we’re currently in Mexico. The first part of the week was spent in Mexico City, and now we’re in Puebla. Read previous entries, including a visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe here. 

— 1 —

This format fits very nicely into the Holy Thursday tradition of Visitation to the Seven Churches – but the account won’t be broken up that neatly, for more than the visitation happened yesterday…and I want to write about that, too.

Thursday would be our last day in Mexico City, a fact that brought both relief and the slightest little touch of sadness. It’s always that way when we travel – just when you’re settling in and feeling comfortable with the neighborhood – it’s time to go. But relief as well, because Mexico City is huge and busy, and even though our quick Thursday morning walk showed us that Holy Thursday would be far less chaotic than other days (given most people wouldn’t be working and the streets were far emptier),  it would still be a relief to get somewhere where our sightseeing wouldn’t require either a long drive or fighting crowds to see what we wanted every time. (I’d be wrong on that last point, thought!)

So, Thursday morning, we awoke, cleaned ourselves and the apartment, packed, but then set out on to see last one sight before we checked out: the parish of the Holy Family, the location of Blessed Miguel Pro’s remains.

It was about a 3/4 mile walk in a direction we hadn’t explored before. Most shops and restaurants were closed, but the street vendors were out. We made it to the church, and prayed in front of Miguel Pro’s relics, which are contained in a small casket on the right side of the church. What was really unfortunate, but not surprising, was that the museum was closed – the museum that holds, for example, the vest he was wearing when he was killed and of course other interesting items and information. I didn’t think that through when “planning” this – that of course it would be closed on Holy Thursday. I am very glad we got to the church, but really regret not being able to see the museum with the boys. I find Miguel Pro’s story so inspiring and humbling (I wrote about him in the Book of Saints under “Saints are People who are Creative)  that even without the museum, visiting him gave me a boost, and I hope did so for my sons as well, not to mention those for whom I prayed there.

M had spied a vendor featuring chorizo on the way, so on the return, we stopped for a taco or two, then made our way back, gave the apartment key to the doorman, called an Uber, and were driven to the east bus station, from which we’d go to Puebla.

— 2 —

Bus travel in Mexico is not like it is in the United States – it’s more like it probably was in the US before the advent of personal cars and interstates, but with better buses. These major bus stations are like very busy airports – probably more so on Thursday because of the holidays. It was very efficient, although these situations are those in which one’s lack of a language becomes a real handicap. In international airports, signage is in English and most employees speak English. There’s no reason for that to be the case here – so it isn’t. Add to that the fact that it’s loud and of course native speakers in a chaotic, busy environment where things need to get done and get done now – are going to speak very quickly.

The buses run so often that there’s no need to buy a ticket ahead of time. I just wanted to get to Puebla mid- to late afternoon, so I knew if I showed up around noon, we’d be able to get on a bus within an hour – sooner that that, it turns out. I got to the ticket counter at 12:15, requested first class tickets on a bus to Puebla, and was put on a 12:35. Total cost, a bit over 600 pesos, which is $33.

We made our way to the proper gate, checked our suitcases, got luggage tags, went through security (didn’t have to remove shoes or laptops, though!), then attempted to board the bus. This is where the language thing was a problem – well, not a problem, just annoying. If I could have understood what the woman was saying to me, I wouldn’t have kept getting in line over and over, only to be told each time, una momenta senora! 

We arrived at the gate at about 12:20, so I didn’t think twice about attempting to board, but when she looked at my ticket, she told me to step aside – una momenta!. Then one group finished, she got on the PA and said something very fast into the din, people lined up, and so up we went…una momenta, senora! Finally, a manager who spoke a bit of English looked at my ticket and was able to tell me that we wouldn’t be boarding until right before the scheduled departure time – which is indeed the way it is. If your bus is at 12:35, you’ll probably board at about 12:33, sit down, and be driven away.

A word about “first class” – the boards I read indicated that it was worth the miniscule extra fee, partly because you get a bit of food. Well, we didn’t get any food. I don’t know if the seats were any better – they were indeed comfortable – and I did get WiFi – I don’t know that’s a feature of all the buses, or just restricted to first class. I’ll probably swing for first class on the way back, too – perhaps it will be less chaotic on Sunday and I’ll have a better sense of the difference.

After a not-very exciting two hour ride  – the first part crawling through Mexico City traffic, and the last on highway, with The Mighty Macs playing on the television hanging in the front of the bus (maybe that was one of my first class benefits? The Mighty Macs? Well, then, of course it was worth it…) we arrived in Puebla, and attained a taxi through the same pre-paid system they had in the Mexico City airport – really quite effective in heading off scams.

—3–

Our hotel is an old one in the centro, just a block from the Cathedral. I let the boys chill, then set out on my usual recon mission – checking out the neighborhood, finding quick food, convenience stores, and just getting the lay of the land.

WUT.

I knew a lot of things. I knew that Puebla is not a small town (it’s the fourth-largest in Mexico, but with an historic center that was part of its appeal to me). I knew that it’s school vacation time in Mexico. But I also knew that it was, er, Holy Thursday – you know the first day of the Triduum, and part of the reason we’re here is to experience the big, serious Good Friday procession?

So I suppose what I expected as I set out was some sort of subdued preparation vibe. No. I put it this way in my head as I walked around.

Well I guess Lent is definitely over! 

Big crowds, family groups everywhere, characters posing for photos with kids, toy vendors clacking their annoying toys, huge clouds of balloons for sale, food vendors, every shop open and just…people enjoying each other and enjoying life.

Not what I expected, but, as the day wore on and I absorbed more of the experience, probably exactly what I needed to break some frankly puritanical (French-Canadian Jansenist mother combined with low-church Methodist dad) currents still running in my blood – although a lot of that was shaken loose by my late husband’s deep, but relaxed and humane piety, it’s still there, and this was an education.

I stopped in the Cathedral – which was coursing with visitors (if you’ve ever been to St. Patrick’s in NYC – it’s the same kind of vibe – just a constant flow around and around) and was treated to a performance – from the dress and relaxed attitude, I’m going to guess it was a rehearsal, but perhaps not? Anyway, it was some kind of oratorio – perhaps the Messiah, although it was a section with which I’m not familiar. Or it occurred to me, it could have been a Mass or even Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. It was lovely. I hope it was a rehearsal and I can figure out when the actual performance is – I didn’t see it posted.

–4–

I returned and got the boys. This was about 4:30, and they’d hardly eaten anything all day, so time for refueling before the Mass fast sets in (we’d be at the Cathedral for the 7pm). There’s a tiny shop right next to our hotel that serves tortas – one got chicken, one IMG_20180329_165031.jpggot full on Cubana and I got milanese – which I finally learned is what they call veal. Slathered with bean spread and avocado, they were delicious, heated in a press. There was an option for some heat, but the shop owner warned by over-enthusiastic son against it, dropping a tiny drop on the back of his hand and inviting him to try it – Brave one took a taste, his eyes widened, and he shook his head: no gracias! 

We then wandered until Mass time – I’ll talk more about Puebla in tomorrow’s post, because I’m sure we’ll be covering much of the same territory in a different way today.

We decided to settle into seats for Mass early – about 6:30. The Cathedral is very lovely, but kind of weirdly set up. There is just not a lot of seating. You walk in, there’s this huge, gorgeous octagonal altar, about twenty rows of seating, and then a huge closed off area for the organ and choir. There’s seating on the side, yes, but in all I can’t see that there are actual seats for more than a few hundred people. What I finally theorized was: first, when it was originally constructed, they probably didn’t have pews, so there was more room, and secondly, when it was originally constructed,  perhaps the organ space – if there was one – wasn’t as large as it is now.

So we thought it was a good idea to claim a seat early – which it was. It got very crowded, naturally. And it wasn’t bad getting there early – we could watch the preparations, mostly one fellow who climbed high above the altar to light the (oil) candles and working to replace a couple of them.

Liturgical notes:

  • Mass was celebrated by the archbishop (or a bishop – there are auxiliaries – but given his age I’m presuming it was the archbishop. Only one priest concelebrant, a deacon, an MC, and an interesting collection of serving ministers. Candlebearers and the VIMP (who holds the archbishop’s accoutrements during Mass) were older women dressed in identical grey suits. There was one teenage girl who was the actual altar server. Other robed adults floated around doing things. (Unlike the Shrine of Guadalupe, where everyone on the altar  – including the troop of servers) were male.
  • The music was provided by the organist and a small choir of adults, with a strong tenor cantoring the responsorial psalm. I have no idea what they were singing (there was no “worship aid” as we like to call it…), but every piece was known by the congregation by heart. The music sat between emotional Latin pop church music and more traditional sacred music, leaning more towards the latter in tone.
  • During the Gloria, two other women in grey suits were in charge of ringing the bells which were very cool – I didn’t get a good photo (partly because there were signs everywhere forbidding photography – I’m thinking just during Mass – I hope) – but will try to go back today or tomorrow.  There were two large rings of small bells – maybe two dozen – mounted on pillars for the choir area behind us. They are rung by pulling ropes – and one worked great, but the woman ringing the bells behind us couldn’t get them to work, as valiantly as she tried during the entire Gloria!
  • The archbishop preached, in a sincere but subdued tone, so that even if I understood Spanish, I don’t think I would have been able to understand him. I saw several people look at each other and shrug during the homily.
  • No foot washing, which was great in my book, but unfortunately no ritual stripping of the altar either – which is always such a solemn and sobering moment. The archbishop did of course process then to the altar of reservation back behind the sanctuary followed by a couple of hundred of us.

–5 —

What to do now? Well….I ventured…there’s this tradition of visiting seven churches where the Eucharist is reserved on Holy Thursday night. I’ve always wanted to do it, but doing so in Birmingham would require driving all around town – there are so many churches here – we could probably knock of seven in about thirty minutes.

They were not super enthusiastic, as well as doubtful about my claim, but you know what? I wasn’t too far off. If we had been totally business-like about the whole thing, and not stopped to watch and observe and figure out some new sights we were seeing it wouldn’t have taken longer than thirty minutes.

So we set out. And discovered something new and quite wonderful. Those of you with roots in this culture won’t be surprised. But I don’t and I was. This visitation of the seven churches is A Thing.  It’s what everyone is doing on Holy Thursday night – wandering around the center of the city with their families and friends, stopping in churches, praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament and enjoying the end of Lent -for at the door of every church were vendors set up selling the typical snacks of this area – the corn, the little tortillas, frying, topped with salsas and cheese, and turnovers.

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I was stunned. I don’t know if this is the “correct” way of seeing it, but this is what came to me as we walked amidst the other families, joined them in prayer and smelled the scents of bounty:

After the Last Supper, Jesus took his friends to the Garden of Gethsemane and asked them to stay awake with him. They didn’t. They slept. As we pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament on Holy Thursday night, we are trying to stay awake, to keep watch with him. We know this. But in this culture, it takes on a different flavor. The entire community – not just me as an isolated individual – is remaining with Jesus, not in strained imitation, but in joy and trust that as he remains faithful to us, we are going to try to be faithful to him, as we are, in community and in joy for the life we trust he has given us – a life that is real and full because of him. We flow into his Presence in the church, we pray, we keep watch, and we flow back out into the world as it is, knowing that in the midst of it, he lives, and we are doing our best to stay with him – not just by ourselves, but as a people.

Plus, you know, Lent is over!

One really intriguing note – that perhaps someone familiar with this can explain. At every church door, in addition to the regular food being sold, there was a table, usually manned by  a religious sister, of big bags of white sheets and scraps of..something. I could not figure out what it was – I originally thought it was wax left over from candle making. I finally asked one woman in some broken Spanish, and a sister who spoke English approached and explained: No not wax but leftover sheets from host-baking. “We eat them as a snack,” she said, “We think they are delicious.” And indeed, as the night went on, that’s what we saw – people walking about munching the scraps. I don’t know if it’s something that is only done this time of year, or all the time.

–6–

So finally, the churches. I don’t have time to figure out what churches we went to. We just started at the Cathedral, and moved towards lighted bell towers. Every church was full of people praying, and many had lines to go in – the doors were marked entrada and salida for crowd control. There were different things going on in each church – silence in one, the rosary being prayed in another, sisters singing in another.

Photos below, with video at Instagram. I also don’t have time to artistically arrange these photos – gotta get going, and this Wi-Fi is unreliable. So I’m going to toss them here and hope for the best. You can click on photos and enlarge them.

–7–

Well, I probably have more to say, but this has taken long enough – time to rouse the troops and get ready for the Good Friday procession…..

Oh, and check out my entry in Living Faith tomorrow. 

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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A very, very smooth trip. I am not in anyone’s fan club, least of all an airline, but I have to say that this Southwest flight from Birmingham to Houston to Mexico was one of the better flights I’ve had lately. First, there were no lame Southwest flight attendant hijinks, which I was dreading. Secondly – when the plane pulled away from the gate…it kept going. And going. Faster and faster until it was in the air! Fancy that…no ten minute waits on the runway followed by another ten minute wait, then followed by a thirty minute wait in which we are told, “Looks like we’re almost maybe perhaps next in line for takeoff.”

Airport moment:

Older (I can still say that! Sometimes!) woman sits down next to me at the gate. Gets out her phone. Starts talking. Loudly. This is what she says, no lie: Oh, she has no class. She speak so loudly all the time. Just no class. Well, yes, I hope they’re happy, but I doubt it will last. You know how it started right? They had an affair? He was married and left his wife for her?

Too bad she’s not as classy as the dame loudly gossiping about her in the airport!

****

One of the very tense moments in any transition from airplane to vacation stay in any city is the issue of actually getting there. Airport taxi rip-offs are everywhere, from Paris to Rome to most other places I’ve never been. Mexico City actually has an excellent system for minimizing the chances of being overcharged or taken to parts unknown.

The taxi companies all have booths in the actual airport. You go up to a booth, and tell them the address of your destination. If you don’t have a lot of people with you, be sure to specify sedan or they will stick you in a van and it will be a hundred pesos more. (Not a lot but still). You pay the booth attendant, he or she prints out a ticket, and then you take it outside to the outside attendant and he or she hooks you up with a taxi. You’ve already paid, they know where you’re going – almost like Uber!

So that’s what we did – taking then about a thirty minute ride through a very busy city to our apartment. There was one stretch of road which was lined with market stalls, thronged with people, and with even more people darting towards cars stopped at intersections with toys, ice cream, and water for sale, and bottles of sudsy water ready to wash windshields.

***

The apartment’s good. The only negative (which I’ll mention to the owner and in the review) is that there’s no “guide to the area” – I’ve rented a lot of vacation apartments before and leaving a guide with directions for transportation (here’s the nearest subway stop, this bus line runs near the apartment, and so on) and favorite local restaurants and grocery stores is absolutely standard. It certainly makes life easier. But other than that, it’s good – two bedrooms, a large living room/dining room.

After a bit of a rest, we set out walking. I hadn’t intended walking all the way to the Zocalo, but that’s what we did, taking a break along the way for Mass. It was a long way (almost 3 miles) and (spoiler alert) we cabbed it back (I couldn’t get Uber to load properly at the moment).

We walked along the Reforma, the main central drag through Mexico City – lots of higher end hotels are located here, there’s a central walking and biking path lined with trees and benches almost the whole way, and I understand on Sunday mornings, they make the road pedestrian-only, which must be lovely.

It was busy, and the closer we got to the center, the busier it got  – it wasn’t unruly or crazy – mostly families of one size or another – but it was certainly a surging river of folks. In a way it was just like any other similar scene in any other city: lots of characters, from Iron Man to Mickey Mouse and street performers – the street performers were, however, in three categories and three categories alone: Hurdy-Gurdy organs, then a man playing an accordion while a woman holding a baby stands with a cup, and little children – no older than seven or eight years old – playing beaten guitars.  Those in the second category reminded me of the beggars in Rome, and I wondered if, as it the case with the Roma and their babies, the children are sedated. As for the little boys banging on their guitars? You might think it’s cute, but it’s really not. You can’t help but wonder what’s going on, and the little boys are clearly tired and even a little angry.

Our primary goal was Mass, which we hit about halfway through at a church I thought had something to do with St. Francis, but which I cannot for the life of me locate on the map right now. We’ll pass it again at some point – I want to go in and look at the décor more carefully, and take phots with my real camera. Some interesting points:

Those of you familiar with Catholicism in Latin countries probably already know this, but it was new to me. And I don’t know if this is standard practice everywhere, but at this parish in Mexico City, it was. In the US, we have our palms  given to us at the beginning of Mass. Regular old strips of palm leaves. We process, have Mass, and that’s it.

It’s different here. Outside of the church are crafters and vendors of artifacts made of palms – the intricately woven standards you might have seen, but even very elaborate figures, such as the crucifixes you see in the photo. People buy those before (and after) Mass, and bring them into church.

Now, we were not there at the beginning, so I don’t know if there was a procession, but it was the end of Mass that intrigued me.

After Mass, everyone who has something – either purchased that day or from home – brings it up to the front for a blessing (It’s like what I’ve seen at the Hispanic community’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Masses in Birmingham – everyone brings up their religious objects, no matter how big, at the end for blessing.)

What was thought-provoking to me was that while, as is normally the case, perhaps ten percent of the congregation received Communion, almost everyone had a sacramental to be blessed and take home. I need to think about it more and work it out, but the dynamic seems to be that Mass is the locus of blessing, the presence of Jesus. From the Mass, we can take the sacred back into the world, into our homes.

Those of us who are frequent Communion-receivers frame that dynamic in terms of the presence of Christ within us in Eucharist – but those who don’t receive the Eucharist frequently still find a way. A powerful way, it seems to me.

 

 

One of the reasons I want to go back to this church is to take a closer look and better photos of the medallions of the evangelists in the sanctuary – you can barely see them running across the center above. What was great about them (again, maybe this is a common motif – I’ve just never run across it before) is that each of the evangelists is, as usual, paired with his symbol – ox, eagle, man, lion – but here they are riding them. It’s fantastic.

After Mass, we just made our way over to the Zocola, which is massive. The added treat was that there was obviously something going on – we could see a crowd gathered, attention directed towards a covered concert area. It was to be a symphony performance – Beethoven’s Ninth.

If it hadn’t been the end of a long travel day with two boys who’s only consumed donuts in the morning for their daily sustenance, I would have stayed for the whole thing. But as it was, I could sense the mood in my crew, which was a hungry one, and there were no food vendors of any sort around, so we took a turn around the square and peaked into the Cathedral (Mass going on in two places within – we’ll go back later in the week for a closer look during the day), all with the first movement resounding in the air. It was a lovely, stirring welcome to Mexico City, and a reminder of the contrasts so much a part of this culture: Beethoven in the square, with impoverished little boys banging on beaten-up guitars four blocks away.

 

We took a cab back to the area of our apartment, and started looking for food. The restaurant at the end of the block I’d been thinking of was closed. We walked around a bit, almost decided to do just sandwiches from the 7-11, but then I said, no, we’ll go back to the Argentinian restaurant not far from the apartment, and that was a good decision. The food was great – excellent fresh empanadas, two huge hamburgers and a fabulous skirt steak for me. It was a fairly casual restaurant, but the service was so old-school and so many levels above the Hey guys, how’s everyone doing style of American eating, the boys were intrigued.

So there you go. I’m writing this Monday morning, and we have a long day of Teotihuacan – the main attraction – ahead. We are knocking it off today because museums are closed on Mondays, so we might as well….

Video at Instagram. 

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What a day!

Up at 6:30 am, over to 7 am Mass at one parish with my working-man-son, sent him off to work, dashed over to the Cathedral for a talk on sacred music from our wonderful Music Director, Bruce Ludwick, then back home to spend the entire rest of this rainy, chilly day..

BY MYSELF.

Yup. With one kid working and the other off to Atlanta on a friend’s birthday jaunt, I was..

BY MYSELF.

Did I mention that I was

BY MYSELF?

For an introvert homeschooling Mom, that’s about as good as it gets.

It can hardly get better.

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Even if you don’t think that is so terribly odd, what comes next might give you pause. You might indeed think it strange  that the cherry on this cake was not Netflix binging or watching movies or even reading a good book – it was…work.

I GOT TO WORK ALL DAY!

(With apologies to the Lord’s Day.)

And I didn’t mind a bit. My work is not hard at this point, but it does take chunks of time. I’ve been managing to get ‘er done in in the early mornings (really only by letting my homeschooler sleep until about 9:30 each day, which he does not mind) and in the evenings. This has worked find for one major project, but another has suffered a bit. The first project will be wrapping up in the next couple of weeks, but the second is ongoing to the beginning of 2019, and I was really feeling the need to gather my resources on that one and get myself organized so that I can work on it more efficiently, perhaps in 30-minute/day chunks. Freeing me up to work on the long-promised, freakin’ Guatemala e-book – which I am determined – determined – to finish and get to you before our next trip, which is coming at the end of March.

So that’s what I did. I banged out work for Project #1 that’s due this week and next – finished, edited, dusted off and invoiced – and got myself deeply organized for Project #2.

It was fantastic. 

And now, with a few more minutes before our very own Publix Employee returns for the evening, some random Sunday night thoughts:

  • My 13-year old and I attended one of the Alabama Symphony’s “Coffee Concerts” on Friday – this one featured Dvorak’s New World Symphony. I have to say, I am so impressed with this symphony and this conductor. Or, as they have branded themselves in typical friendly Southern fashion, “Your Alabama Symphony Orchestra!” The performance was vibrant, vivid and quite moving. Strong, delicate and urgent all at once, looking forward and backwards, east and west.
  • It didn’t hurt that this time, instead of seating us with all the other hordes of schoolkids in the balcony, they put is in the Orchestra seating with all the other old people (and other homeschoolers).
  • This is what we read in preparation, and we also watched a short video which I can’t locate at the moment – but know it was very helpful, especially in understanding the very last measures of the piece. Sorry.
  • Saturday was music – a piano festival competition thing – basketball – last game of the regular season, playoffs start Tuesday – and serving – Confirmation retreat Mass at Casa Maria Convent, led by Fr. Augustine Wetta, OSB, who is the author of this new book, which I am hoping to read soon. My son really appreciated what Fr. Wetta had to say during his homily – which is one of the reasons I have them serve over there at the convent. Every time they do, they are privileged to hear excellent homilies from either one of the local friars or the retreat master for the weekend. Religion Class: Check.
  • Over the past two weeks, homeschooling son has read Murder on the Orient Express as his “school” reading. (He’s reading the Dune trilogy as his leisure reading) It was his suggestion, and so we went with it, doing some background on the history of detective fiction and so on. After re-reading it, I’m thinking we could have done better – I probably should have had him read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or And Then There Were None – but perhaps neither of those would have held up, either.
  • I haven’t read Christie in decades. As a teenager, mysteries were my gateways into adult fiction, my favorites being Christie, Ellery Queen and Rex Stout – the last being my absolute favorite. So I don’t think I’d read her in probably 40 years (so weird to think in that kind of time span when speaking of my own life), and no, I wasn’t impressed. She wasn’t a stylist, that’s for sure, and this book, in particular, plods along (Murder. Interview many people. Cogitate. Announce.) and the climax and denouement are, in my mind rather shocking (spoiler alert!) – as the murder is, we are led to infer, excusable since the murderers act as jury to do what institutional law enforcement did not.
  • We’re read a lot of books, stories and poems this year – this one will be last on the quality list. I’m not completely sorry we read it: we did some geography and history inspired by it and it’s good to read books of which you can be critical – so there’s that. Plus issues of justice and law, of course.
  • The 1974 film version was one of the last movies I remember seeing with my parents in the theater (along with Young Frankenstein and Being There – with, respectively, those super fun “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” and “I like to watch” scenes putting an end to that activity and any future potential awkwardness). We watched the trailer for that and last year’s version, both of which left my son saying, “Uh, I don’t think I want to watch either of those….”
  • What’s going on with school? We are indeed finishing up homeschooling 7th grade and finishing the 11th grade in a Catholic high school. Next year, everyone will be in school – 8th grade in a local Catholic school (because they do a very nice 8th grade year in this particular school and he has friends there…) and senior year in the same high school. And then….well who knows? Actually we do have a sense: the older one will go to college and the younger one and I will set out – God and good health and the stock market willing – on roadschooling/roamschooling/unschooling way of life for a while. We’ll keep the Birmingham homebase for a time, but will hopefully be able to see a good chunk of the world in between stints back here. But that’s more than a year away, and who knows what can happen between now and then? That “plan” is one more reason for him to return to school for a year – we can both have a breather, I can get some ducks in a row without having to think about teaching Algebra, and then…here we go….
  • Oh, I’m in Living Faith today – here’s the devotional. And if you missed it, I was also in another day last week – here it is.

 

 

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Lent’s happening. Here we are.

Take a look at this marvelous photography project:

I’ve always been a street photographer. It just so happened that I was out photographing on Ash Wednesday in 1997. Out of only maybe six sheets of film, I had two really good pictures that day, which are amazing odds and it felt lucky. After the second year of doing it (when I photographed the police officer) I realized I had something. Because it’s only one day of shooting a year, it never makes me feel like it is enough, I feel compelled to do it again and again each year. It’s like an addiction.

From the book’s website:

“When I first saw someone with a cross of ashes on their forehead, it seemed like they were revealing a secret about themselves that was almost mystical. The idea, then, of asking this complete stranger if I could take their picture felt more personal than usual, like I was asking for their soul. But my subject’s response was “sure,” as if I had just asked to photograph them with their hat or scarf.

While Ash Wednesday is a solemn day for practicing Christians, meant to observe one’s mortality and repent, my primary interest is in the visual juxtaposition of the contemporary with the ancient. I encounter my subjects on their way to Saks Fifth Avenue, running to an important meeting or to catch a train, yet they wear the mark of a sacred ritual.”

 — 2 —

Just a reminder about artist Daniel Mitsui. He has a blog here, in which he always has interesting things to say about his particular art projects and art in general – for example, how he makes a living as an artist. This recent post on the “Lenten veil” is fascinating. I learn something new every time I visit his site.

Of course the most important thing to remember about Daniel Mitsui is – support his work. 

— 3 —

I had a lot of Lent-related posts this week, and will have more over the next couple of days. Just click back and forth to see. 

–4–

Earlier this week, First Thing’s Matthew Schmitz tweeted about the film The Salesman. I’d never heard of it. It’s on YouTube. I’ve watched about half of it and will finish on Friday, probably. It’s fascinating.

 

–5 —

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Today, my 13-year old and I attended a school concert presented by Your Alabama Symphony! (that’s how they’ve branded themselves) – the theme was music related to Alabama history (this year is the 200th anniversary of us becoming a territory, next year, of statehood.) That, with a bit of 1812 Overture tossed in. As usual, the orchestra was excellent, the audience was cooperative and had clearly been well prepared by their teachers (there was a lot of singing along) and at one point the folk singer leading the program said something like:

You know, when we sing the songs that people two hundred years ago sang, in a way, we’re joined with them – we’re all sharing the same life. 

Hmmm…I keep running across this notion, articulated in relation to music and literature (remember the poetry article from a few months ago?).

The truth is that memorizing and reciting poetry can be a highly expressive act. And we need not return to the Victorians’ narrow idea of the canon to reclaim poetry as one of the cheapest, most durable tools of moral and emotional education — whether you go in for Virgil, Li Po, Rumi or Gwendolyn Brooks (ideally, all four)

How does memorizing and reciting someone else’s words help me express myself? I put this question to Samar.as young, and he was talking about love. I related to him,” Ms. Huggins said. (He writes: “We talked a lot and feel a kiss on our lips/Trembling there like a small insect.”)

“Reciting a poem will help you express what you’re trying to say,” she told me. “It’s like when I need to pray about something, I’ll look into a devotional, and those words can start me off.” Ms. Huggins grew up Episcopalian, but even the resolutely secular need to borrow words of supplication, anguish or thanks every now and then.

..do you think there might be something to it?

Nah….let’s sing a new church into being instead! That will be much better!

 

— 6 —

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Tonight we attended a screening of Grassroots Film’s Outcasts, presented at our Cathedral of St. Paul. It was moving, powerful, sad and hopeful. Filmmaker Joe Campo was in attendance, along with two friars. The film was a powerful witness to the friars’ apostolate around the world, but, just as importantly, an opportunity to think about the huge need for all kinds of Gospel-guided presence in our own community…and what might be happening on that front.

— 7 —

Guess what! I didn’t make cheese pizza for Ash Wednesday!

But nor did I make ….this:

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(Spoiler alert: I made this. It was delicious, but then I, for some reason, adore lentils.)

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(Feel free to swipe and share)

It’s just a little more than a week away.

Are you getting your meal plans ready? Because you’ll probably want to take a look at the Gallery of Regrettable Lenten Food before you go shopping:

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But seriously – 

If you’re on the lookout for resources for yourself, your kids or your parish or school, take a look at these.

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  • The Word on Fire ministry is more than the Catholicism or Pivotal Players series – as great as they are! There are also some really great lecture series/group discussion offerings.  I wrote the study guide for the series on Conversion – a good Lenten topic. 

  • A few years ago, I wrote a Stations of the Cross for young people calledNo Greater Love,  published by Creative Communications for the Parish. They put it out of print for a while…but now it’s back!

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This booklet was published in 2017 for  Lent 2017, but even though the specific readings aren’t the same..hey, it’s all still Lent. It was published by Liguori, also available in Spanish.

(pdf sample of English language version here)

Kindle version of English booklet. 

Paper version. Still time to order with Prime. 

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The Spanish-language version is not available in a digital format, but here is an Amazon link, and yes, you can get it soon via Prime. 

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PDF sample of Spanish language version. 

Contact Liguori at 1-800-325-9521 for parish and school orders. No promises, but they can probably get orders to you by next week.

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Looking ahead to First Communion/Confirmation season? Try here. 

Also – some older posts on Lent – feel free to link and to take the graphics and use as you wish.

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That was a pleasant break. In looking over the calendar for the next two months, I’m doubly glad I made the decision to take off next weekend. Until mid-March, we’ll have basketball almost every weekend, and when there isn’t basketball, there’ll be piano competitions..not to mention the other son’s work and school obligations.

So, yes, it was good that my 13-year old and I were able to take a couple of days down in Pensacola. More details about why we went in that direction here.

Friday morning, we rose and headed north, to the campus of the University of West IMG_20180119_103225Florida, which has well-regarded departments of archaeology and anthropology. The institute building stands right at the entrance to campus, and features a good-sized exhibit space. As I mentioned in that previous post, there’s a lot of history down there in Pensacola, beginning with the native peoples, of course, and then bringing in the Spanish, as well as the British, French, United States and Confederates.

We’re not talking Roman concrete structures here, so what is left from these settlements is underground or underwater and even in neighborhoods – as is the case with the recently-discovered site of the first Spanish settlement, the ill-fated group associated with de Luna – ill-fated because of a hurricane that swept through and sunk all the ships on which their supplies were still contained. The institute’s museum has good artifacts and explorations of some of the major archaeological sites in the area.

M then requested that we headed to Milton to one of those sites featured in the exhibit – Arcadia Mill:

Between 1817 and 1855, Arcadia developed into a multi-faceted operation that included a sawmill, a lumber mill with planing and lathing machines, the Arcadia Pail Factory, a shingle mill, textile mill, an experimental silk operation, and one of the first railroads chartered in territorial Florida. Arcadia also included a thriving industrial village of mixed ethnicity including enslaved African Americans, Anglo-American laborers, and high-status Anglo-American managers. The site’s historical significance extends beyond its antebellum roots including a few small Civil War skirmishes, the Arcadia Farm period during the late 19th to early 20th century, and the historic preservation movement that protected the site during the 1960s.

As you can imagine, there is not much left to actually see – some lumber from a structure in the creek, the remains of the dam, and some sluiceways – but the site is very well developed, with a fine little museum staffed by friendly young people, whom I’m assuming were students, and a decent walking trail.

On the way, we’d seen a sign for “Rhonda’s Aviary,”  which featured, not only a picture of an exotic bird, but also of a reptile, so of course on the way back, we stopped in.

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So no zoo this trip, but this was almost as satisfying.

Then back to downtown Pensacola, where we saw a bit of their historic area – a decent little Living History area, which even had – on this chilly January weekday – a few people Living their History – carving, cooking and being genial in their 18th century garb.

There are two museums – both essentially a series of exhibits in large warehouse spaces across the street from each other.

The Museum of Commerce features shops that you would have seen in downtown Pensacola in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were all closed up, but what I gathered from the signage was that most of them were intended to replicate actual shops that operated. I’m assuming these shops – which are museum/exhibit shops, not actual commercial enterprises – are open for exploring during high season and for school groups. The only exhibit space open when we were there was a substantial collection of printing presses and linotype machines.

Across the street is the MUSEUM OF INDUSTRY!  Again, not huge, but informative enough – we learned about the importance of brickmaking in the early economy of the area, as well as (of course) fishing, railroads and timber, which includes not only wood products, but turpentine.

(Whenever I think of the Deep South and turpentine, I always think of Tim Gautreux’s novel The Clearing. The looking up of which led me to discover that Gautreaux, a favorite, has a new short story collection, just published in December.)

By that time, it was close to two, and the effects of the hotel breakfast had worn off, so we poked around for a lunch place, and landed at ….where M had what he claimed was one of the best burgers ever. It certainly looked substantial.

Then, with the temperatures rising to the mid-50’s – a heat wave – we headed to the beach. Not to swim, but to see more history and simply be outdoors.

We ended up at the Gulf Shores National Seashore, out towards Fort Perkins. The drive was slow and leisurely (speed limit 25 mph), the breeze gentle, and the sand so white it looked as if we were still in the midst of snowdrifts.

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We poked around the fort and around the batteries that are scattered on that end of the beach, learned about the history, followed a heron for a while, and then, as the sun set, headed back.

 

 

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Recent….reads:

“The Canterville Ghost” by Wilde. This was our easing-into-school read this week. I’d never read it, nor seen any of the adaptations, but I knew the basics of the tale: An American diplomat and his family knowingly move into a haunted English estate. The ghost attempts to haunt them, but the pragmatic, good-humored Americans are immune, giving Wilde ample opportunity for some amusing satirical, but entirely good-natured commentary on cultural differences.

The deeper point, I suppose, regards the American disdain of tradition and deep history. They don’t believe in the ghost, but once they accept his existence, they treat him with undaunted practicality – suggesting medications for whatever ails him – and derision, teasing and even torment from the younger family members.

But then, Wilde, as he is wont to do, turns the tables on us all by way of sentimental spirituality, as the family’s daughter, appropriately named Virginia, provides the mediation the ghost requires to find peace.

It’s short, a good read, and a good way to explore the uses of satire and cultural commentary, as well as a bit of light spirituality.

 

 — 2 —

I also read Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime in the same volume. It’s a mild satire on 19th century gothic literature, in which a palm reader tells a young man he’s destined to murder someone. The young man, who is engaged to be married, decides that if this is Fate, he will try to take care of this before his wedding so as not to ruin his marriage. Since this is Oscar Wilde, the descriptions can be delectable:

…at the end of the picture-gallery stood the Princess Sophia of Carlsruhe, a heavy Tartar-looking lady, with tiny black eyes and wonderful emeralds, talking bad French at the top of her voice, and laughing immoderately at everything that was said to her. It was certainly a wonderful medley of people. Gorgeous peeresses chatted affably to violent Radicals, popular preachers brushed coat-tails with eminent sceptics, a perfect bevy of bishops kept following a stout prima-donna from room to room, on the staircase stood several Royal Academicians, disguised as artists, and it was said that at one time the supper-room was absolutely crammed with geniuses.

Lord Arthur’s deeply misdirected sense of obligation is appropriately appalling and the consequences darkly comic, but I enjoyed The Canterville Ghost more.

Next up (for him) “The Lottery” – and then a new novel starting next week. (On his own, he’s reading Dune.) 

— 3 —

I am probably not supposed to read this, but I am trying my hand at A.N. Wilson’s Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker. Everyone says he gets the science all wrong, and wow, look at all those one-star reviews,  but as I am a fan of works that subvert conventional wisdom as well as those that set ideas in historical context, so once I saw it on the library shelf, it was impossible for me to resist.

 

–4–

Recently watched:

Not much, really, over the past week (sports and video games keeping control of the new television), but tonight I got up two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents for us – via the Internet Archive. On the big television, which still amazes me. Anyway, I looked up what fans say are the best of the series, and we watched a couple: “The Man from the South,” with Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre, and “Lamb to the Slaughter,” with Barbara bel Geddes.

Spoiler alert – well, not really, since it happens at the beginning of the episode – if you have seen the second, you know that the plot involves a woman who kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, and the subsequent investigation into the crime. I thought it was good, but I also thought it would have been better if we hadn’t know her weapon until the end – it seemed to me the crime could have been artfully glossed over, and it would only gradually dawn on us what was up as sweet blonde Barbara serves up a late supper to the cops.

–5 —

Recent writes:

Look back for posts on Homeschooling Fall 2017 report and a jaunt my son and I took up to north Alabama to see Sandhill Cranes.

As well as ongoing projects.

 

— 6 —

Oh, I guess I should add this to the “recent watches” – might as well knock this off here.

We finally got around to taking a look at Stranger Things – both seasons. I had been highly resistant, first because if you tell me something is a “must watch” and inundate me with think pieces on it – yeah I’m going to #resist. I might come around, but don’t save space for me on the bandwagon right away.

I was also resistant because it’s a Netflix series, and even though it does feature pre-teens and teens, it’s a Netflix series and I knew that while it wasn’t Thirteen Reasons level, I did know that the language was a little rough. But I read reviews and gathered opinions from people whom I trust, and finally, from my throne, offered my assent to the viewing.

My take?

Meh.

Well done on a superficial level – for the most part. (The second seasons is much weaker than the first) A decent introduction to “peak TV” for teens. But:

 

— 7 —

While at times, from moment to moment, I could get swept up in the suspense as a whole, it just didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t find the 80’s setting engaging – I don’t have a lick of nostalgia for the 80’s, and the series really had nothing to say about it except: Big hair, shoulder pads and Reagan yard signs.

I didn’t find it thematically resonant. Articles proclaimed it a super-Catholic show in a deep sense – why? Because characters were sensing signs of the supernatural through the material? Stretching it. Other articles honed in on kids solving Big Mysteries on their own and tying it into themes of broken families – except that, well, Kids Solving Big Mysteries On Their Own is as old as E. Nesbit and probably older – all great kid-centered adventures have the kids on their own – what fun would it be with adults around? Secondly, the “broken family” theme didn’t really factor into the theme as strongly or meaningfully as I had expected coming into it – especially since it really only factors into one of the children’s situations.

Beyond that, I had two problems with Stranger Things, one relatively minor and the other more fundamental. First – the kids cussing. I’m not on board with that, especially at the level they took it here, and I even found some of it unrealistic. Sure, preteens and teens will curse in their own conversations, but would a typical small-town 13-year old curse as part of a doorway conversation with one of his friend’s parents? That was just off, as was the level of cursing, especially in the second season. The second season, which was far weaker than the first, and really, from a story perspective, had little reason to exist  – and yeah, those kids swore a lot more in the second season than the first.

But more importantly – I’ll try to articulate this, although this type of criticism is not my forte. I feel something, but I’m not sure why I feel it or what an alternative would look like. So with that introduction…

The plot of both seasons of Stranger Things was about a malevolence that lurks beneath ordinary life. It took different forms in each season (which is something that didn’t make sense to me – what happened to the Upside Down – until that last shot of the season?) – but that was the driving element of the plot – this Stuff that was largely unseen, was in some way a negative image of what we live with every day, but for some reason, sometimes, seeks our destruction and must be contained.

Except – whatever this is has no actual relation to life as it’s lived. You can say – well, that’s because it’s been contained – but what I think was missing was any thematic connection between this hidden evil and human life and choices. There was this Bigger Thing – this Stranger Thing– but it was just a creepy destructive force which had no motivation except for a hunger-driven destruction, and that found no reflection or reference in the hungers or creepy destructive forces that we encounter in every day life or in the world at large.

It’s not that Stranger Things needed blatant metaphors telegraphed in lame fashion, but I guess what I am attempting to say is that I never had any sense that this malevolence or the efforts to contain or control it was a metaphor for anything, and that rendered it ultimately not very interesting.

That said, some of the acting was remarkable, particularly from Millie Bobby Brown, who played Eleven, the girl who’d been kept to develop her psychic powers, and Gaten Matarazzo, who is a natural and a delight.

I found Winona Ryder tiresome – well, of course her frantic aspect was perfectly understandable as she sought her lost son and became convinced he was trapped in, er, the electrical system. But All! The! Anxious! Shouting!

And can I say this? Will it get me into trouble? Probably, just for being stupid. But here’s the thing: the creators of Stranger Things are twin brothers, and I really felt that during this show. The whole thing felt like the expression of very insular world that was about that world and not much else.

And the second season….there was no reason for it. Especially if your name is Bob. Poor Bob.

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It did make for a good running joke during Christmas, though….

 

 

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It’s early January, yes, but temperatures today were supposed to get into the 60’s. And since the next few days promise rain followed by a precipitous drop in temperature, it seemed like a good day to get out of town.

Where to go?

I have a slew of daytrip ideas stacked up, but here’s what’s bugging me: I’d really like to take my 16-year old with us on most of them, too. For example:

  • M and I went to Memphis two summers ago and had a great time – and when the older boy (who’d been at camp, I think) heard about what we’d done, he said, “I want to go next time…”
  • During World War II, there was a huge POW camp in Aliceville,Alabama. Not a scrap of it remains, but there is a museum – that’s supposed to be rather good.
  • We’ve not yet made it to the important sights in Selma or Tuskegee – again – those are trips I’d like the older boy to be on, too.

So cross those off the list (well, and Memphis is too far for a day-trip anyway). Since it was going to be pleasant, we’d want to be outdoors. But somewhere different…where to go?

How about…here?

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It didn’t take long. We left well after the older son went to school and beat him back home, but it was just enough, and it was amazing.

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge is a large area that embraces the banks of the Tennessee River and tributaries around Decatur and Huntsville, Alabama. If you’ve driven on I-65 across the Tennessee, you’ve touched the Wheeler Refuge.

Here’s the story:

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge was established July 7, 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife. It was the first refuge ever superimposed on a hydro-electric impoundment and in the early stages, considered an experiment to determine the possibility of attracting migratory waterfowl onto a multipurpose impoundment. 

 Although designated as a waterfowl refuge, Wheeler provides for a wide spectrum of wildlife. Its great diversity of habitat includes deep river channels, tributary creeks, tupelo swamps, open backwater embayments, bottomland hardwoods, pine uplands, and agricultural fields. This rich mix of habitats provide places for over 295 bird species to rest, nest and winter, including over 30 species of waterfowl (ducks and geese) and an increasing population of Sandhill cranes and a small number of Whooping cranes. 

 

I’m glad I honed in on it this week – the cranes will start migrating again soon. It had been on the edges of my radar for a while, but crept closer to the center this week because I saw a notice about a “Crane Festival” up there this weekend – I’d considered doing that, but then thought – why attack the place with thousands of others when we can just run up there during the week? I’m very glad we went.

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It was an astonishing sight that our cameras couldn’t capture – perhaps with a better telephoto lens, we could have. Also – a lot of the photos were taken through the glass of the observation building, which is, incidentally, apparently suffering from the same infestation of ladybug type beetles that we are down here.

Just know that to see, even from a bit of a distance, thousands of Sandhill Cranes hanging out, occasionally taking flight and making a lot of noise, is fascinating. There were apparently some whooping cranes in the crew as well, but I didn’t see them.

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Again – not a great photo, but just know – that mass of gray? Sandhill Cranes. Thousands. 

(If you want to hear them – or at least what I was able to capture – go check out Instagram.)

Here we are, toting our gear, poking around in the grasses, and there they are en masse, finding whatever it is they find, always together, never alone.

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There were, of course, a lot of waterfowl as well, and high up in a tree we spotted bees swarming around a cavity in the trunk.

There’s a decent little visitor’s center with exhibits to get you going. There were many other visitors, mostly older (ahem) folks as well as two school groups. It seems to be a well-used facility.

We drove north, along 565 (which takes you to Huntsville), and pulled off to walk a couple of other trails – we were told there were a lot of some type of waterfowl on a particular branch – which we saw, but from such a distance, even with binoculars, they were impossible to make out. The Beaverdam trail didn’t, unfortunately, have any beavers, or dams, but during our twenty minutes or so there, we walked through something different – a swamp populated, not by cypresses, as we usually see, but Tupelo trees.

And then back home, reading and being told about the Mayans, once again, as well as his latest read, Dune in which – he reported  – “Something happened. Finally.”

Next stop – eagles!

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It’s my turn:

My 12-year-old son and I were in the car, on a dirt road through a forest, on our way to a swimming hole.

“Wait,” he said. “Is that an owl?”

More…

 

 

And for more of the same, try the Catholic Woman’s Book of Days here or, as Lent approaches, you can still grab digital copies of two Lenten devotionals I’ve written – Daybreaks and Reconciled to God. 

 

 

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