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A Beautiful Voice: Andy Williams, 1927 – 2012

I grew up in love with Andy Williams — I’m not too young to have enjoyed many years of watching his Christmas specials and growing up with a pretty solid crush on him. What a beautiful, soothing voice — comfort, coziness, holidays, and romance. Grateful for the gift of mellow tunes and beautifully warm memories. Cheers, Andy, and thank you for sharing your gift for so many years.

Here are a few that send me somewhere else. . . Enjoy!

Take Back Your Time

The Head of Nimue, by Edward Burne-Jones

“In terms of taking back our time, the first essential tool is saying no. No to our own greed and self-importance. No to the extra work we carry home. No to hearing without listening, looking without seeing; no, above all, to the insistent voice of advertising, which thrives on our restlessness and dissatisfaction, and does everything it can to exacerbate them. A Brobdingnagian NO to all those things makes space for an even more gigantic YES.

My private code for this is to refuse and choose.

We . . . can refuse to participate in the ‘mad race of time.’ We can choose to talk face to face with our friends instead of via email or on the telephone; we can play with our children, now, this very afternoon; we can go off for long walks across the hills. We can turn off the television once and for all. In short, we can rejoice in being one of the elite who actually does have the privilege of choice instead of complaining endlessly about our lack of time.

The Red Studio, by Henri Matisse

Of course it can feel difficult to drop out of the rat race: to stand at the side of the road while our friends and colleagues race on across the horizon. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. In Matisse’s painting, “The Red Studio,” the clock has no hands. We need to find a ‘red studio’ of our own, the studio of our own insistent heart, perhaps, in which to set up an easel or a writing desk, or pull a dreaming daybed towards a broad, wide-open window. It sounds so simple — almost too simple to be worth saying — but slowing down can be a tremendous source of joy.” (Excerpted from World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, by Christian McEwan, pp.30-31)

What would you do if you had more time? Find one thing, and then find the time and make it happen.

Beauty Break: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

I am fascinated by the process of art: how a fragment of a dream in the mind of an artist is conceived and brought to eventual fruition. So often, I think, we encounter great masterworks, whether they be paintings, musical pieces, or novels, and perhaps fail to take into account everything that had to happen for this work to come into being. It is a rare privilege to peek into the inner workings of the mind or eye of the artist, to see his hand at work in the process of creating beauty.

The Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino is offering just such a rare peek into the work of creating waking dreams of beauty. The exhibit “Pre-Raphaelites and Their Followers: British and American Drawings From the Huntington’s Collection” is on view through September 26 and is worth a beauty break if you are in the area. Incidentally, if you are unfamiliar with the Pre-Raphaelites and their distinctive contribution to 19th century arts and letters, Stephanie Pina provides a brief but excellent overview, along with some helpful links, on her lovely website dedicated to all things Pre-Raphaelite.

One of the primary goals of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), which included the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais, was to renew British art and literature, in particular through the faithful observance of nature. Many people think their influence was limited to the United Kingdom; this exhbit dispels that idea, showing clearly how the theories, techniques, and philosophy of the PRB moved across the pond and found great sympathy among a group of American artists, architects, and geologists who formed their own group — The Society for the Advancement of Truth (SAT) — modeled after the PRB. 

Though tiny — only 37 drawings — the exhibit was a revelation. There were careful studies of larger, more well-known works by the British artists which revealed the detailed and painstaking processes involved in making the dreams in their minds come to life. Most of the American artists represented focused on landscape painting, everything from the domes of Yosemite in the Sierras, to the Hudson River Valley, and beyond to Florence. There were  also two small detailed landscape studies by Walter Crane. Several American Pre-Raphaelites in fact had a very close relationship with the British critic John Ruskin, an artist in his own right, who was credited with spreading the philosophy of Pre-Raphaelitism through his many writings and patronage. Two of these American Pre-Raphaelites, Henry Roderick Newman and Esther Frances (Francesca) Alexander, were represented in the exhbit. Ruskin’s own drawing of the crumbling castle walls of Kenilworth was on view as well.

Highlights included “Andromeda,” by Edward Burne-Jones as part of a study for his larger The Rock of Doom in his Perseus Cycle.  A head study of a woman by Rossetti and another series of studies by Frederick Sandys were significant. There were four gorgeous miniature studies for The Lady of Shallot, by William Holman Hunt. These in particular give a sense of how the artist tries to conceive of the image from different viewpoints. And many times, as in this case, the end result looks nothing like the original conceptualization. Finally, in juxtaposition, one of the few original existing copes of the first volume of the PRB’s journal The Germ: Thoughts Toward Nature in Poetry, Literature, and Art displayed next to its American sister SAT publication The New Path: A Monthly Art Journal.

It was hard to choose any one piece as a favorite, but I suppose there were three that absolutely stood out for me. Charles Allston Collins “Beati Mundo Corde” was almost photographic in its precision of the young nun’s facial features.

“Isabella Boccaccio,” by John Riley Wilmer alludes to the 14th century Italian poet Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a favorite of the Pre-Raphaelites. The piece might also be a reference to John Keats’ poem “Isabella and the Pot of Basil,” which is itself derived from The Decameron.  Incidentally, Holman Hunt painted his own Isabella. I tend to like the layered quality of the narrative paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites — every picture tells a thousand stories and there are so many details to linger over.

Finally, this “Head of a Girl,” a study in gold tip on prepared paper by John Southall is simply breathtaking. She is truly a glimpse of the ideal of Pre-Raphaelite beauty in every way.

On reflection, this small but important exhibit does what it set out to do and reflects the fulfillment of the Pre-Raphaelite vision in creative communities on both sides of the Atlantic in their effort to “see everything, small and large, with almost the same clearness.”

 

“Know once and for all, that a poet on canvas is exactly the same species as a poet in song….”  John Ruskin, Pre-Raphaelitism, 1851

Beauty Break Bonus: One gallery in the Huntington’s British Art Museum holds original furnishings, textiles, and ceramic tile pieces by William Morris and Co. Be sure to sneak a peek down the staircase at the end of the gallery for a floor to ceiling Morris stained glass, with art work by Edward Burne-Jones. I was unable to photograph this, but here is a link to a lovely photo taken by someone else. Gorgeous……..

 

Beauty Break: 48 Hours in God’s Country

Road trips rule in our household. The only problem is we don’t take nearly enough of them. Years ago, my husband and I thought nothing of picking a destination, hopping in the car, and setting out on an incredible journey. We didn’t really have much of a plan, we just ambled along, stopped where and when we felt like it, and explored.  We used to say that the curvy road sign was “our” sign. And it still is. But many things have whittled away at our ability to road trip freely — but have done little to quench the “highway companion” spirit we share, and which our son has inherited.

After seeing a small photograph of Devil’s Postpile in Mammoth, California, in AAA’s Westways Magazine a couple of months ago, I mentioned I’d never been there. My husband said, “Let’s go! That can be my Father’s Day gift.” Perhaps it was an offhand comment, but within a few weeks, we had cobbled together a trip and a budget and marked the calendar — we had 48 hours to travel into the Eastern Sierras and back again. Who knew what adventures we’d have along the way?

It turned out to be a spectacular trip in every sense of the word — a true road trip, into the middle of no where, into wilderness, following rabbit trails as we pleased, and cramming a huge amount of activity into an amazingly small compartment of time. We all agreed it felt as though we had been gone much longer than two days and none of us was ready to come back home. Two things made the trip fantastic — the beauty of nature that surrounded us, and the much-needed time together as a family, just the three of us. It was truly a nourishing time, for the body, mind, and spirit. Grab a cup of coffee or tea and enjoy the virtual beauty break!

Our first stop was at the Ranger Station at the Mt. Whitney portal, just south of Lone Pine. (On a personal note, my father-in-law is legendary for doing Whitney in one day!) It’s so interesting to drive through miles of desert, only to enter into the amazing juxtaposition of the jagged glacier covered peaks of the Sierras, the vast desert scrub (so eerily close to Death Valley), lush trees and grass, and flowing streams and rivers that make up the Owens Valley. If the ocean were closer, this place would truly be like heaven on earth.

We’re big classic and Western film buffs, so of course we had to do some exploring in the Alabama Hills, just behind the little town of Lone Pine. Hollywood has used these hills, canyons, and valleys to film hundreds of movies over the last 75+ years. We were lucky enough to find the “California Historical Site” of the filming of Gunga Din, one of my favorite films starring Cary Grant. The hills are amazing because they can “look” like many different world locations, like India for Gunga Din or the Middle East for Ironman I. In the total isolation and silence, its easy to imagine the clatter of horses hooves carrying an unsuspecting gunman towards the dangerous Indian ambush lurking around the next rock.

Our primary destination was Devil’s Postpile National Monument in Mammoth Lakes, California. Yes, that is snow you see behind us — in JULY in CALIFORNIA! The ski runs were open until the end of June. Crazy, and very cool.

And, of course, homeschooling happens all the time, even on vacation. Skippy got lots of practice with geography, map skills, history, nature study, geology, and climate while we were away.

The postpile is really something to see — totally amazing rock configurations and unique formations, perfectly formed by volcanic activity. Apparently, the formation is one of the finest examples of columnar basalt in the world. There was a time when the monument was threatened. A developer wanted to blast the area and use the basalt stone as rocks for a dam project; however, the naturalist John Muir and a prominent U.C. Berkeley geologist intervened and were able to save the site. Being an admirer of bees and a nature lover in general, I was fascinated by the hexagonal “honeycomb”  shapes of the rocks. Probably my favorite part of the formation is the curved extrusions on the left side of the wall — this  reinforces the reality that at one time the molten rock was pushed, almost like Playdoh through a Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop extruder, into these finely formed shapes.

I loved seeing the wild flowers sprouting out of cliffs and rocks all along the hike. It was an interesting connection to the Gospel reading we heard at Mass that morning: the parable of the sower. His seeds fall in all different kinds of soil, only one of which bears fruit. These tiny flowers grow in the unlikeliest of places — it was a reminder to me of hope and promise, and the sheer tenacity and perseverance required to live a life of real faith in a world so opposed and hostile to such a life. Their delicacy contrasts so sharply with the harsh jags of the rock surrounding them. Beautiful……

After viewing the postpile, we felt like pushing on ahead down the trail to Rainbow Falls……not part of the original plan, but we were just enjoying the day and the beauty of being outdoors in such fresh air. The river that had meandered alongside us the entire hike dropped off the sheer cliff face of a huge granite gorge. No words express the beauty and grandeur of this place. It was the high point of the hike. The pictures speak for themselves.

“The visible world is like a map pointing to heaven. . . We learn to see the Creator by contemplating the beauty of his creatures. In this world the goodness, wisdom, and almighty power of God shine forth. And the human intellect. . . can discover the Artist’s hand in the wonderful works he has made. Reason can know God through the Book of Nature. . . ”  — John Paul II, 1993

 

Beauty, Grace, the Big Screen — a follow-up….

After reading this post, my friend, Rose, reminded me about Holy Wood Acting Studio, here in Culver City, CA. Its a new acting studio, dedicated to helping actors fulfill their mission to be true artists and servants of Truth and Beauty in the world. If you know anyone who is interested in acting, or if you are at all interested in the power of film as an art form, the studio is worth looking in to. Be sure and watch the introductory video that comes on before you click on the link to enter the site. Its only about a minute and a half and it is very inspiring.

The mission of the studio was recently written about on the National Catholic Register website by Joseph Pronchen, which he followed up in print with a longer article.  The article gives a clear idea of the goals of the studio and articulates the important role of film in accomplishing the goal of all art, which our late holy father, Blessed John Paul II, said “is nothing less than the upliftment of the human spirit.”

Hoping and praying many good film projects, and good people, will be coming out of this studio in the future….

“Remember that you, artists, are the custodians of Beauty in the world.” — Blessed John Paul II, Letter to Artists

Beauty and Grace on the Big Screen

Last night, our good friends invited us to accompany them to Los Angeles to attend a rare screening of Warner Brothers 1935 classic Captain Blood at Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater. The event was hosted by the Los Angeles Conservancy, a group which seeks to preserve LA’s cultural and architectural heritage, as part of their Last Remaining Seats series which is dedicated to screening the classic films of Hollywood in Los Angeles’ remaining classic movie houses. John and I both love classic films and this has long been one of my favorites, though it was a first-time viewing for John. There’s really nothing like seeing a classic film on the big screen. What a treat! It was a great beauty break, both on-screen and off.

 About the theater…….Sid Grauman (yes, that Sid Grauman of Grauman’s Chinese fame)apparently opened the theater in 1918, seeking to diversify after the San Franciso earthquake damaged some of his property in the Bay area. It is reported he spent $1,000,000 to build the theater, hence the name. (This is an interesting contrast in that the production costs for Captain Blood were in the  $700,000 range, which was a huge amount of money to spend on a film for that time, especially during the Depression era. We’re talking blockbuster expenditure here.) And the money shows. Elaborately carved circular wood ceilings easily soaring beyond 50 feet above the orchestra seats, a deep, steep balcony high above the proscenium stage with a magnificent view of the screen, gilded wood trim on simply everything, red back lighting behind dark wood, sumptuous velvet draperies, and Gothic wood alcoves which held the organ pipes for the old Wurlitzer.  This photo to the left is the view from our seats. Just going to see a show in such a theater was an occasion. It was easy to imagine what it had been like in its glory days. I think the quality of the theaters in the golden age of Hollywood really reflected the idea that film is an “art” worthy of being experienced in elegant, beautiful surroundings. The theater then necessarily reflected  respect and esteem for the art of filmmaking and for those who participated in it.  I would argue things are quite a bit different now — I cannot remember the last time I entered a modern movie theater and gasped in awe at its beauty. If the film is artfully done, the movie house should serve as the setting which shows it off at its most brilliant. Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater serves as just such a setting for Hollywood’s gems.

This isn’t to suggest that every theater achieved such a level of refinement, or that every film old Hollywood put out could even be considered art. Quite simply, there was an effort and an emphasis in those days that has been lost, and both the Million Dollar Theater, as a showcase setting,and Captain Blood, as a timely tale of virtue and chivalry in the face of trials,  illustrate this effectively.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by Rafael Sabatini, with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland cast as the main characters, Peter Blood and Arabella Bishop, respectively. The plot, briefly: British physician and gentleman Peter Blood is sold into slavery in Port Royal after being wrongfully accused of treason in a plot to overthrow the evil King James. He and his companions endure much cruelty and torture before Peter is able to use his skills as a doctor to help them all escape. They cleverly steal a pirate ship, thereafter vowing to become pirates all, as they have no home or country to which they can return. And so begins Blood’s notorious, albeit chivalrous, career of piracy. Still, we see that what meant the most to him as a physician — the vow he had taken to “do no harm”  — seems to have been buried in his greater desire for revenge. He breaks this vow by his life of piracy. Thus, when Peter again encounters Arabella on board his own ship, after he has “bought” her back from the lecherous Lavasseur (brilliantly played by Basil Rathbone) she spurns him. In Peter’s mind, he has reclaimed his manhood and his freedom, symbolized by all of the pillaged treasure he encyclopedically parades before her; however, to Arabella, he has sold out, merely escaping from one form of slavery into another, and she’ll have none of it. She reminds him of who and what he used to be, of the dignity he possessed as a man and a physician, and suddenly Peter sees that his willing enslavement to revenge has not only led him to break his professional and chivalric vows, but has lost him the thing he wanted most– Arabella’s love.  Of course, the story doesn’t end there — but you’ll just have to see the movie to find out what does happen! Truly, Arabella stands as a reminder for all that is noble and good and she reminds Peter of the unspoken code of chivalry which he had always held himself to. She raises his heart and mind to something higher than his baser instincts. These are timeless, beautiful, and necessary themes that are sadly missing in the majority of today’s films.

Amazingly, Olivia de Havilland was only 19 years old when she made this film. She and Errol would go on to make eight more films together, all of which are wonderful as they had quite a chemistry.  Right from the first, she captivates the viewer and demonstrates her grace and beauty on-screen. She brought this grace and beauty to whatever character she portrayed in such a natural way that she fully commanded the attention of the audience with her presence. It seems to me a case of the person infusing the character, and not vice-versa. For my part, I can’t think of any tween or twenty-something actress today that has such presence, such command of an audience, who captures the definition of what it means to be a lady in the classical sense of the word. Of course, older actresses come to mind, but who now, at 19, possesses this trait? Its more than being just a pretty face. Any beautiful woman can draw attention simply by her beauty alone; but it’s not every beautiful woman who is  also able to inspire a man to strive for what is noble and good and virtuous. Because Olivia de Havilland was a lady, it was easy to believe her character’s challenge to Peter —  to reclaim his life and live it for the higher purpose he was called to rather than the degradation and false freedom he had chosen to sink to. If more actresses today had that spark of beauty and grace within themselves, they’d be better role models for our girls, and inspire more men to lives of noble virtue.

If you’re in LA or environs, make plans to stop at the Million Dollar Theater for a nostalgic beauty break — you won’t be disappointed. And if you’ve got young boys or girls — or are young at heart yourself — make some time to watch Captain Blood — you’ll experience beautiful filmmaking, a compelling story, and classical themes of beauty and grace that are priceless.

Thanks so much, Bob and Kris, for a spectacularly beautiful evening!

There Are No Coincidences

This absolutely isn’t a political/editorial blog, so please bear with me as I share what may seem to be unusual thoughts. I can’t believe that I am the only person stunned by what seems to be an obvious connection to the death of Osama bin Laden yesterday (May 1) and the two significant events Catholics around the world were celebrating that same day: the Feast of the Divine Mercy and the beatification of our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. It also happened to be the first day of the month devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Isn’t it amazing that, after 10 years of searching for this elusive terrorist who wreaked such extreme havoc on 9/11 and who has continued to threaten America and the West repeatedly through Al-Qaeda, he should suddenly be found, isolated, and subsequently killed by U.S. forces on Divine Mercy Sunday, and on the day when the “mercy pope” was beatified? It is beyond the realm of coincidence in my mind. It seems to be clearly in the realm of divine providence. It is a sort of justice, also perhaps a gift of grace, but it is also a reminder and an opportunity to pray.

Of course, we can’t expect to hear anything about this connection in the secular media.  At the very end of his formal address  from the White House commenting on the operation that led to the death of bin Laden, President Obama at least alluded to the fact that God may have had some small role to play in the success of the mission to defeat bin Laden. But this was somewhat buried in the greater emphasis of the address on acknowledging the pride of our national identity. Clearly our success in this effort is attributed to WHO we are, and we are not a people beholden to anyone, not even God. To his credit, the president also asked that God bless the people and the nation of America. Indeed, we would all hope and pray that God would continue to bless America and her people. Let me be clear: there is no moral exoneration for the choice of evil as exhibited by bin Laden and other terrorists. However, in spite of everything that makes America great, our culture continues to deny the very existence of God through it policies and practices. It is no secret that our culture is anti-life. Amidst the devastating holocaust of abortion and its effects, the victimization of our children and families, as well as the increasing challenges to life at all levels in our nation, it is difficult to hide from the hypocrisy of standing before God and asking him to bless our nation and our people. As proud as I am of our servicemen and women and their selflessness, sacrifice, and courage in doing their duty, it is also difficult for me to be proud in general of our country and to hold my head up as our leaders assert that we are an example to be followed and emulated. In our ideals, this is most certainly true. But so often the ideal and the reality are diametrically opposed. We walk a very fine line on a very slippery slope…….

Our Lord told St. Faustina that “Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to My mercy” (Diary 300) On the feast of Divine Mercy, on the day of the beatification of the “Apostle of Mercy,” the death of Osama bin Laden is a reminder to me that our country needs God. We need to humble ourselves and acknowledge that every good thing and blessing we have here comes from Him and Him alone, not from who we are as Americans or from our prowess and determination. Perseverance and determination in the face of injustice and evil are positive and necessary traits; but they are God-given traits, and cultivated apart from humble faith and trust in God, they become simply another aspect of pride. Without God’s benevolence our country and our people would be nothing. In our time, when the machine of the culture of death is so hugely prevalent, that God should grant us release from the extreme threat of this terrorist on the day when we are called especially to venerate and glorify His mercy is extremely significant, perhaps miraculous. 

My 9-year-old son came home for the first time on 9/11, after spending a week in the NICU due to his premature birth. We couldn’t even get to him as the freeways near all airports were closed. It was the most frightening  experience of my life, and one of the most painful, to be helplessly separated from my son. Along with everyone else in the country, I mourned the loss of life from the horrific events of that day, and shared the intense stress and fear terrorism is specifically designed to instill in its victims. While I was happy to be a new  mother, I have to candidly state that I also wondered and worried about what kind of world my son had been born in to. My trust and confidence were shaken. The shadow of the devastating effects that clouded the day of my son’s homecoming have continued to haunt me over the last 10 years. Still, I did not feel happy when I heard the news that Osama Bin Laden was dead. I felt sober, like something had been finished, and just as immediately I saw the connection to the Feast of Mercy on which he died and was filled with a quiet, prayerful  awe. A sense that something significant had happened and that I needed to pay attention.

The Vatican’s official statement on the death of Osama bin Laden is a careful, sober, and pointed reminder of our collective responsibility: “This morning, following the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the Director of the Holy See Press Office, P. Federico Lombardi, issued the following statement to reporters: Osama Bin Laden – as everyone knows – has had the gravest responsibility for spreading hatred and division among people, causing the deaths of countless people, and exploiting religion for this purpose. Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of everyone before God and man, and hopes and pledges that every event is not an opportunity for a further growth of hatred, but of peace.”

As a nation, we need to beg God for mercy, both for ourselves and for those who would do us harm. We need to pray that the many gifts we have been given as a country will be shared and used to show the light of truth to a world starving for beauty, mercy, and love. It is no coincidence that this much-hated and feared terrorist died on the Feast of Divine Mercy, for John Paul II also died on that feast day, six years ago. The great mercy pope — who publicly forgave the man who tried to assasinate him, who offered us all an example of mercy in action, and who spent his pontificate proclaiming the message of Divine Mercy — and the great unmerciful terrorist, who — as hard as it is to imagine or believe — was and is also beloved by God.

And that is the gift of beauty in the Divine Mercy message — God’s mercy is for all of us, no matter who we are, who we have been, or what we have done. It is for the most hardened sinners, whether they be individuals or entire nations. His mercy and compassion are inexhaustible, endless, without limit — an unfathomable abyss of love awaiting an encounter with each and every person, if only each one asks, acknowledges her need, for that mercy. Only God knows if Osama bin Laden was open to this gift of mercy at the end. May this event be a reminder to pray that God “look kindly upon us, and increase His mercy in us, that in difficult moments, we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence, submit ourselves to His holy will, which is love and mercy itself.” (Diary, 950)