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Bella Vacanza

My good friend, Todd Hansen, has graciously agreed to allow me to post his reflections and pictures from his recent trip to Italy! When I’m unable to get much beyond the confines of home, sharing armchair travel with friends is a breath of fresh air that satisfies the wanderlust — at least temporarily.  I hope you enjoy! And thanks again, Todd, for sharing your beautiful experience with others.

I have to tell you about a beautiful vacation to Italy that my girlfriend and I took this summer! It was way better than we anticipated and involved planes, trains, automobiles, and many boats.

We had a beautiful room on the island across from Venice (Giudecca) for 2 nights. Of course, this is where the boats come in: boat from airport to hotel, frequent shuttles to Venice, and a very nice gondola ride.

The view from the hotel at Giudecca. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

We both love the classic Italian preparation of Seabass (traditional Branzino) the whole fish, de-boned and looking at you, with lemon and herbs. So I ordered it 3 times on the trip! Each time was different, one being so lightly breaded, you could call it “dusted”. Each preparation was a savoury delight.

Then, a high speed train out of Venice to Rome was a great idea. There, we picked up a rental Fiat for our drive to Sorrento, 3 hours South. It was a wonderful drive that took us right around the base of Mt. Vesuvius. My driving skills were tested coming into the sloping cliffs of Sorrento on a busy weekend. I didn’t hit one scooter!

The Sorrento Coast. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

I was treated to a perfect birthday dinner in Sorrento overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. The next day we jumped on a large ferry to Capri for a daylong excursion of even narrower roads (with a great taxi driver), molta bella views of the Tyrrhenian, and a dip into the ancient waters.

Back at the Sorrento hotel lounge for a drink, we found ourselves devouring a complimentary plate of olives (one of many bar snacks). Seems they had a perfect blend of fennel seeds, peppers, and olive oil, one we would never be able to re-create on our own. And it gets better! The 30 year veteran bartender, Gemmaro, served me the best cocktail I’ve had in recent years: an Alexander — my first experience of the drink & also my girlfriend’s last name.

On our way out of Sorrento, we thought we would swing over to Positano for lunch. This is the famous Amalfi Coast where the homes and buildings are built on sloping, rocky hills right down to the water. It is a must see. And I recommend doing so from a nice little restaurant overlooking the coast with a plate of Pasta Carbonara in front of you — Scusi, more pepper please!

The Amalfi Coast. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

Next stop: Pompeii. Not an easy park to find, but once we did our luck improved greatly. After walking around a bit, we asked a worker for advice and he proceeded to give us a quick guided tour of the highlights that we would never have found on our own. We saw a beautiful fresco, an ancient grape crusher, and to my amazement – actual human remains from that fateful day in 79 AD.

Once we got back to Rome we were quite exhausted from the long, hot drive. But our hotel was another pleasant surprise, with a wonderful balcony for 2. So we relaxed with some local olives and wine. Now we had to try to give Rome it’s due respect in one day! We set out for the Colosseum early the next day and again we stumbled upon a group tour that worked out for the best. The 2 guides were very informative about the Colosseum and nearby ruins.

The Roman Colosseum. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

Even though it was a national holiday, we thought we should go to The Vatican to push our good luck. Now, I’ve seen a lot of big Italian churches from my previous trip to Italy, but St. Peter’s Basilica is by far the biggest — OMG! Luckily, Lorna begged a scarf for her shoulders so that we could witness the magnificence of the Pope’s home turf.

After such a grand display, I needed a drink. So we hoofed it over to Trevi Fountain for a sip of water supplied by an ancient Roman Aqueduct (working almost continuously since 19 BC!) and some Italian Pinot Grigio. It was amazing to me how there are remnants of Roman Aqueduct all around the city. These are very old structures, proudly secure amongst buildings of steel and glass, quick moving autos, and time itself.

Todd and Lorna at Trevi Fountain, Rome. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

So you can see we did a lot in a short amount of time thanks to my girlfriend’s expert planning. We both agreed on the highlight of the trip: the food. It was all so flavourful and fresh, inventive and classic, and yet you knew you were eating healthier than home.

Want to sample Todd’s authentic Alexander cocktail? Here’s the quintessential Italian how-to.

This post is dedicated to my friend, Ruth Nina Walsh, who has a great love of travel and art and who has always wished to visit Italia. Buon Viaggio!

The New Noblewoman: An Authentic Feminine Mystique For This Generation

If you’ve increasingly felt distanced from the superficial, politicized, less than intelligent propaganda that currently passes itself off as “literature and media for women” then welcome to a breath of fresh air, a place where the unique inner life of the feminine spirit and mind is nurtured and cultivated, prized and revered. Welcome to The New Noblewoman (TNN).

Amanda Millay Lanier, founder and editor of TNN has graciously agreed to be interviewed for one tiny violetAmanda has created something totally unique to fill a noticeable void in the realm of women’s magazines and her work is simply saturated with BEAUTY!  Of course,  I fell in love with her publication and wanted to share it with you here. Grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and spend some time with Amanda as she shares her thoughts on beauty, the essence of what it means to be a woman, her eye for fine art, and her plans for the future of The New Noblewoman, then pop right over and check out the magazine!

one tiny violet (otv): How did the idea for The New Noblewoman (TNN) come about? In what ways is it different from other women’s magazines today?

Amanda Millay Lanier (AML): The concept actually started as a book. I’ve always been fascinated by history, especially the images of daily life in well-done historical dramas. I’ve always wished I could “go back in time,” but rather than simply pine away for the old days, I decided to figure out how to incorporate those elements into my life today. I started researching and writing a book that would describe the houses, clothing, food, and customs of women throughout history, and talk about how women can live similarly in the modern world. But given how hard it can be to find a publisher, and how discouraging it would be to work on a project for years with no feedback, I decided to create a website instead.

The New Noblewoman is different from other women’s magazines in a couple of main areas. One is that the articles—whether on style or gardening—draw heavily from the past. Reading TNN is a combination of a regular women’s magazine and a history lesson.

Armand Point, "The Golden Legend," 1898

Another difference is the images that accompany the articles. The world is filled with incredible artwork—yet magazines always use these awful staged photographs of models or celebrities. So reading TNN is also a way to get an art education as well, and it’s much more visually appealing than the typical women’s magazine due to the artwork.

A third key difference is in the values the site promotes: TNN is for modern women who are dealing with real problems—whether it’s what clothing to buy, relating to your spouse, or keeping a New Year’s resolution. But TNN focuses on ways to address these issues with wisdom and values that are timeless and emphasize good character and honor (both things that are rarely addressed directly in the typical women’s magazine).

otv: What does it mean to be a “noblewoman” in today’s society? Is it simply one facet of being a woman, or does it encompass several aspects of women’s experience?

William Blake, "Jacob's Ladder" 1800

AML:I think any woman can choose to be a “noblewoman” today. In ancient Greek, the word aristocrat simply means “the best,” and any woman today can be the best type of woman she aspires to.

And being the best (i.e., being “a new noblewoman”) should be something that infuses every aspect of a woman’s being—the way she walks, how she dresses, what type of food she prepares, what she does in her leisure time.

Of course, there isn’t just one set script for any of these things. Although TNN discusses etiquette and classic style, I think being noble is primarily about discovering your true self and fully exploring your talents. The only required aspect to being noble today (which is the same as it was throughout history) involves seeking out the higher aspects of life rather than being caught up in the materialistic, consumer society that surrounds us and is propagandized to us every day. That higher aspect could be through a love of art, literature, philosophy, homemaking, mothering, politics, or religion.

otv: How do you imagine the reader of TNN and what can that reader expect when she visits TNN for the first time?

AML: The readership of TNN is very diverse. There are women readers from college-age to middle-age, and a number of men too! We have a slideshow that features some recent articles and most popular articles, which provides a showcase of featured artwork. A reader can explore the website by the latest articles, which start on the homepage, or browse by topic. Our categories are Beauty & Style, Home & Garden, A Woman Should Know, Relationships & Etiquette, Poetry, and Inspirationals (a selection of inspiring quotes).

otv: The tagline for TNN – “The Art of True Womanhood” – raises two interesting questions: What does it mean to be a true woman? And in what ways is being this true woman an art?

AML: One thing that all nobles in history have in common is their emphasis on religion—since it’s only recently that there have been societies that are completely secular.   Whether it was pagan Rome, Hindus in India, or Christianity throughout the Middle Ages, the nobility were supposed to be ruled by spiritual guidelines and submit to the authority of the priests. If they didn’t have religious guidelines to temper their hearts, it would be easy for people with so much power to rule badly and no longer be the protectors of the people (and we have countless examples in history of when this happened). So I think the deepest truth of what it means to be a woman relates to her life as a spiritual being.

Frank Cadogan Cowper, "La Belle Dame sans Merci," 1926

There’s a lot of debate about what constitutes an art—nowadays almost anything crafty or creative is called art, and I think we’ve become a little too generous in the definition. I think an art should be something that requires extensive practice, combined with skill, and also be something that impacts the core of one’s being. You can be a fabulous musician, but if there’s no feeling in it, then you’re merely a highly skilled technician rather than an artist. And being a woman is no different—it requires training, education, practice (and failure!), as well as the capacity to feel. Women have to switch between so many roles in one day—bring a nurturing mother, a sensual lover, a hard-minded businesswoman (even if it’s only a household budget), and a creative artist for her own projects—being a woman really does seem like a lifelong practice in mastering an art.

otv: You’ve worked as a journalist. How have your experiences in journalism and media shaped your vision for TNN?

AML: One thing that I love about the Internet is that it’s allowed so many great websites and blogs to flourish that never existed in the days of print journalism. It also allows for a greater variety of opinions, since not everyone on the Internet is beholden to the interests of their advertisers and owners. But one thing I don’t like about the Internet is how casual it’s made writing, due to attention spans getting shorter and the desire of audiences for quick, superficial blurbs of information. With TNN, I bring back more of an essay style for articles, and try to make every article actually worth reading. There are no catchy headlines that fail to deliver any substance.

My first job was at a newspaper, and as a print journalist you’re taught that the space you have for words is very valuable. It could be worth hundreds of dollars in advertising, so you have to make each sentence valuable. You’re also not allowed to delve into your own feelings and experiences like people do with blogs. But readers do like personal stories, so it’s been a challenge to add a little bit of personality to articles, while keeping it at the level of a magazine rather than a personal blog.

otv: In a recent article on TNN discussing the film Coco and Igor, you distinguish between the way the two female characters are presented in the film and posit the question as to which one offers the best model for women. The answer, you suggest, lies in women “maintaining a reverence and adherence to traditional customs and rites, combined with a modern self-determination to follow one’s dreams.” What do you see as the greatest difficulty women today have in achieving this balance? How do you see TNN helping today’s woman aspire to and achieve a balance between these two ideals?

AML: In the film Coco and Igor, the traditional lifestyle isn’t completely working for Stravinsky’s wife. Some parts do—like retaining some Russian décor and clothing—but she’s not able to function well in the changing world and is out-of-touch with her daughters. But Coco Chanel is a little too modern. She’s a little too hard-headed for her business and doesn’t respect the sacred rite of marriage.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, "Umbrellas," 1883

I think of traditions—whether religious, cultural, or familial—as living things that go beyond the mere external forms, but the external forms are important as well. For example, everyone knows that clothing doesn’t make the person—we don’t say a woman wearing pants is “less of a woman” than one in a long dress. But in a way, clothing does impact the person wearing it quite profoundly. Putting on an evening dress and fine jewelry causes us to act differently than when we’re wearing jean shorts; walking into Notre Dame Cathedral produces a type of spiritual awe that we don’t feel when walking into a church in an office building with TV screens everywhere.

I think about (and struggle with) the dichotomy between a traditional lifestyle and modern individuality every day, and many of the articles on TNN are inspired by my daily life. And these are questions that many women have. How do we dress in a way that’s inspired by the past, without looking like we’re in a Halloween costume? How do we adhere to traditional customs, even for simple things like serving tea, without seeming either pretentious or silly? How can we be traditional wives, while also protecting ourselves financially? I’ll be exploring all of these things as I reshape my own life to better fit my ideals, so readers can follow along on my journey and share their own experiences as well.

otv: One of the functions of TNN is as a virtual art gallery, which is unique. Can you tell us about some of your favorite artists? What message does their work convey about women and beauty that you feel is important today?

AML: My favorite painters are probably the Pre-Raphaelites, since their paintings are not only visually beautiful, but depict stories and myths that are very moving as well. Some of my favorites are John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones, John William Waterhouse, and Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale.

As for contemporary artists, I love the genre of pop surrealism, especially Nicoletta Ceccoli, Camille Rose Garcia, Joe Sorren, Marc Burckhardt, Ray Caesar, and Mark Ryden—all who draw from the old masters but with a modern flair.

Most of these artists present very idealized images of women, combined with aesthetics from the ancient world, Arthurian legend, or the world of European drawing rooms. These are worlds that, while not better than the present in every way, women long for and are inspired by. I think it’s important to showcase such images to demonstrate the level of beauty that is possible in a society. As the world continues to change, many readers of TNN will be involved in defining how we want our cities, neighborhoods, and homes to be, and considering the great wealth we have today and the advances we’ve made in technology, there’s no reason that we can’t aspire to revive or reinterpret the most beautiful examples from the past.

otv: How is the art you choose for the magazine reflective of the image you’d like to cultivate, both for the magazine and your readership?

AML: Nowadays art has been replaced by advertising. If you look in a magazine, you won’t find any art, just pages and pages of artistic ads. These advertisements are trying to sell you a product, by using an image of a better world. I’m trying to sell that better world itself, and to teach women how to create it for themselves.

otv: Tell us about some of the women who are or have been an inspiration to you. What influence have they had on your concept for TNN?

Frances Macdonald, "Spring," c. 1900-05

AML: There are so many to choose from. I’ve always been fascinated by the stories of women who’ve struggled with having to choose between being an artist and being a wife and mother. These women often thought that women’s emancipation would have a great liberating effect for women, but I’m not convinced the situation is better for women today. Most women still have the same struggles, but with the added stress of working outside of the home added to the mix. In that genre, I’ve been inspired by the writers Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Philippa Burrell; the dancer Isadora Duncan; and the diarist and painter Marie Bashkirtseff.

otv: Many women today experience pressure to look, act, or dress a certain way that is not reflective of whom they are on the inside. What advice would you give to the woman who struggles to achieve a real sense of style or beauty in her daily life?

AML: That is so hard to do, and I struggle with it all the time. One of the biggest problems I’ve faced in the fashion arena is that shops today simply don’t offer the type of clothing I’d like to wear. To other women, I’d recommend spending some time reflecting on who you think you are as a woman (or who you want to become), and what type of clothing and lifestyle will help you feel that way.

I’m in the process of revamping my wardrobe (and plan to write about it soon). It involves getting rid of everything that doesn’t fit well or that doesn’t fit the image I want to cultivate for myself. By the time I’m finished, I’ll have much less in my closet, but it will only be the items I truly love—a better wardrobe overnight just by getting rid of things. I’ve found that I have to actually get rid of clothing or put it away, since otherwise I’d never put on a dress when it’s so much easier to throw on a pair of jeans.

As for other areas of life—Kierkegaard talked about how you can only go from one quality to another by a leap (a leap to faith). There are analogies to the type of spiritual despair he discussed even in unhappiness with style and beauty in one’s daily life. For women experiencing this, I think it takes one of these leaps to faith—to either becoming the person you truly think you should be or in freeing yourself of the image of what others think you should be. It takes a conscious decision to start living and thinking in a different way, combined with daily affirmations of the reasons why you’re changing (in order to keep at it until these changes become habits). Of course, this will only change you, and not any externals like having to work in an ugly cubicle or deal with unpleasant people, but eventually these external changes will start changing your spirit and the way you view and interact with the world too.

otv: The time-tested value of virtue and the practice of manners, of acting like ladies and gentlemen, has faded in popularity in today’s culture. How can mothers of young girls work to raise young women who know and value what it is to be a lady? Alternatively, how can mothers raise boys to be men who behave courteously and with a chivalric attitude towards young women?

AML: That is such a tough thing to teach these days! I was buying etiquette books when I was in elementary school, but the influences of other children and the television can make the work of the most devoted parent seem futile—even with a child like me, who had a natural inclination to these things.

Adam Emory Albright, "Children Playing With A Kite"

The most important advice is to get rid of cable TV, or at least screen what you let your kids watch. My husband and I use the money we save from not having TV to build a DVD library, and it works great. (Plus, forcing ourselves to wait until shows come out on DVD is good practice in not getting everything we want right away.)

For young girls, I’d advise finding books and movies that portray the values you want your daughters to have—art is very powerful in shaping ideals and values, especially of young people! Use what you can of their interests to guide them to better values: If they love Disney princesses, show them what princesses from fairy tales or from England are like, and help them to live like a princess in their life by doing volunteer work, respecting others, and being polite and tidy.

For young men, there are a lot of stories of knights and adventurers that can help them find chivalry interesting. Giving them chores and responsibilities that are described as “manly” can help them in their self-esteem, and instill in their minds that men and women are different, and that girls need a little more respect and care than their boy friends.

I’d also enroll both boys and girls in cotillion or dance classes around 4th to 8th grade (the age for these classes seems to vary by location). They’ll learn how to dance (which is one of the best ways to ensure your son will always be popular with the ladies!), will get used to wearing dresses or suits and interacting with the opposite sex in a more formal environment, and will learn a lot of social etiquette too.

I think it mostly comes down to determining what your standards are, sticking to them yourselves, and making your kids do those things too. Although it sounds petty, an explanation as simple and firm as “this is how our family does things,” can be enough to get kids to do something. After 20 years of having to write thank-you notes and make pleasant conversation during dinner, they’ll start bragging to their friends about their upbringing rather than complaining about it.

otv: What is your response to critics who say nobility is out of style or old-fashioned?

AML: There are several ways nobility can be interpreted. One is as “the best,” as I mentioned before. Another is as the rulers of a society. And another is as people of noble soul. And none of these will ever disappear. We will always have people considered “the best” in society and whom others try to emulate, and we will always have some kind of ruling class. Unfortunately, today these people are typically either celebrities or the capitalists who’ve made the most money. Part of the mission of The New Noblewoman is to change people’s perceptions back to what they were for most of history—that the best people are those of the best character, and that those are the ones who should be the leaders of society, whether in the political, artistic, or educational arenas.

otv: What made you decide to offer a free online platform for the magazine and is this platform crucial to TNN’s identity? Any plans for a print edition in the future?

AML: It would be great to have a print magazine in the future—but given the costs associated with printing, distributing, and managing a large staff of writers, designers, and a sales team—it’s not likely unless we receive a lot of investor interest.

I do have plans to do a series of books down the road—both free e-books and print books. Some will be original content, similar to the articles on the website. Others will be compilations of artwork, essays, and poetry. And there are some great books by women that are out of print (or in poor editions) that I’ve love to republish.

otv: Tell us some of your short- and long-term goals for the magazine as it grows.

AML: I’ll be starting a series on concert music, which will highlight some of the great classical recordings that can be seen for free on YouTube. I’ll also be doing more in the “Famous Lives” series and digging up some classic essays to reprint along with the poetry. Another new feature down the road will take readers through various museums and art galleries of the world, including some galleries of contemporary artists.

I’m also looking into starting a non-profit arm of The New Noblewoman. The response to the website so far has been amazing, and there are a lot of people interested in donating money but who need to have a tax write-off. Having a non-profit branch will allow TNN to be not only a website and publishing house, but to focus on outreach in order to start a bit of a cultural revolution among women.

Thank you, Amanda, for your gracious sharing and for the gift of The New Noblewoman — clearly a much-needed presence in women’s media. I encourage all of my one tiny violet readers to take a beauty break and visit The New Noblewoman regularly — it’s free! — to read all of the articles Amanda shares about here, and sign up to receive her weekly e-newsletter, which includes new content posted to the site.

Beautiful Book Pick: Sarah’s Key

Every once in awhile, some one stumbles upon something that is a revelation to her, something that forces her to rethink a singular event. That event can no longer be viewed as just happening to a large group of anonymous people. Now it is seen as having happened to one person, a person with a name, a heart, feelings and a life who was changed forever by that singular event. Thus, it can be said that some of the best historical fiction focuses on unexplored, uncomfortable, or even secret events that really happened. Examining history through the lens of little explored — or selectively forgotten  — events provides an opportunity to rethink what we already know, and ponder more deeply what still lies hidden from our view.

In her novel Sarah’s Key, Tatiana De Rosnay confronts the difficulties involved in bringing these historical secrets to light. She turns the spotlight on a significant but little explored event that many in France, and the world, would likely prefer to forget: the  cooperation of the French police with Nazi demands for the deportation of French Jews during WWII that resulted in what has come to be called the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup.  It’s a can’t-put-it-down read that forces us to examine the everyday injustices that we participate in, either by direct cooperation or simply by not speaking or acting out against them.

The plot turns on Julia Jarmond, a 40-ish American journalist living in Paris, assigned to cover the commemorative anniversary of the Roundup for an American Paris weekly. In the beginning of the novel, short chapters alternate deftly between the past — specifically, July 1942, following one anonymous family, and more particularly the daughter of that family, through the Vel’ d’Hiv — and the present, in which we become acquainted with Julia and the unusual circumstances that end up making her the perfect, the only, person who could truly write this story. Somewhere near the middle of the novel, the parallel lines of the lives of these two women converge in an intense conflagration.

Deportation of Jews from France/ Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The anonymity of the Jewish family who are victims of the roundup underscores the intensely essential, but often forgotten fact, that history happens to individual human beings. The acts of individuals or collective groups have astonishing and often irreparable and horrific consequences in the lives of everyday people. This is a reality glossed over by the sweeping, impersonal, and biased narratives of history books throughout the world. Every character tellingly has a name in the 1942 portions of the novel, except the “girl” and her family. “The girl” is at once no one to those who wish to exterminate her, but is in every sense SOME ONE to those who love her. This nameless “girl” lived through an atrocity no one wants to think about or remember. She lives, breathes, feels, and believes and she has a story to tell, a promise to keep, and a difference to make. 

From the very beginning, Julia encounters many obstacles to completing her assignment — her husband, Bernard, and his family refuse to condone her research as worthwhile and make every effort to discourage her completely from proceeding. In addition, much historical evidence of the Roundup has been conveniently wiped away: the buildings in the area of the Velodrome and the Velodrome itself have all been razed, articles and pictures are hard to come by except through one Jewish agency who still seeks to find and name all those missing in the Holocaust, and the majority of witnesses are deceased. No one, it seems, thinks the Vel’ d’Hiv worth remembering or worth writing about. On top of everything, Julia struggles with a disintegrating marriage and the feeling that she is fading, disconnected from who and what she thought she’d become. The assignment, despite its difficulties, renews her sense of purpose and her joy in her vocation while presenting her with the challenge of puzzling out and asserting an individual identity from amidst a group that would seek to annihilate it.

There are two holocausts personified in the novel. The Jewish holocaust is juxtaposed against another holocaust, no less morally problematic and reprehensible. Julia is forced to choose either to confront or to participate in this modern-day atrocity.  The juxtaposition of moral choices and the individual’s participation in murder through lack of defiance or failure to speak weighs the holocaust of one generation against that of another with very disturbing parallels, which Julia fails to see (at least early on). While she is confused and repulsed by those who stood by and failed to do anything to save those who were rounded up and deported during the Vel’ d’Hiv, she herself fails to recognize the moral turpitude of her own situation until it is nearly too late. This is a theme that pervades the novel from beginning to end: It is easier to go with the flow, to do nothing that will cause commotion, to simply give in and cooperate. It is easier to ignore, to forget……. The saying that history repeats itself is never more true than in this fact: we often fail to take the lessons from history and apply it to ourselves, to our own society or personal situations; hence, what seems innocuous and gradually asserts itself as the moral norm is really the germ of some past nefarious deed reincarnating itself under another form, with the same devastating effects.

If there is any fault with the book it might be that the ending is a little too tidy or predictable, and there are places in the last quarter of the book where the writing slips into sentimentality or a reliance on easy plot devices. But these minor technicalities are forgiveable and do not take anything away from the main action of the novel — Julia’s growth and catharsis through this intimate and personal encounter with individuals who were previously “dead” in their anonymity — an anonymity forced upon them because their experience was too horrible to look upon or contemplate, because there was no one who could or would help them live with what had happened to them —  and whom she fearlessly and purposely brings back to life through uncovering and giving voice to their secrets, secrets that belong not only to them, but to all of humanity. In doing so, Julia uncovers and admits her own secrets, and looks deeply in to the places where her own life is most at risk, bringing everything in to the light and changing herself and those who know her profoundly.

Beauty Take-Away: This novel really brings the inherent dignity of the human being into sharp focus against others who have total disregard for this dignity. One view is beautiful and divine; the other is dark and devolves into the utter blackness of despair. It is not an easy novel to read — there are times when it is excruciatingly painful to go on to the next sentence. But the imminitable dignity, beauty, and gift of human life is present on every page. Ultimately it is a novel of hope and faith and a belief in God. De Rosnay weaves a story of life out of the ruins of the culture of death. This is a rare occurrence in mainstream fiction today and it is what makes Sarah’s Key so worth reading.

About the film: Read the book first. As in all cases, the book is better. The film is not unsuccessful, but it fails to reach the depth of insight the book accomplishes and glosses over some of the major conflicts that weigh so heavily in the development of Julia’s character in the novel.

Proud . . .

. . . . of my son and his choice to wear his great-grandfather’s naval uniform for Halloween this year. (You can see his great-grandfather, wearing this very uniform standing with my grandmother, in the picture Skippy is holding below)

My grandfather, Jim, was a Quartermaster on the U.S.S. Thatcher destroyer (Little Beaver Squadron) in WWII. He was a proud patriot and gave up a lot to serve the country he loved. With so many of the brave souls who fought in and experienced this war passing on, it is important to us that Skippy know and understand the sacrifices made on his behalf. Interestingly, while out trick-or-treating Skippy met another Navy man. He served on the Midway. We need to remember…..

I know my grandfather would have been thrilled to see Skippy wearing his uniform, and I know my mom would have cried. . . . here’s to you, Grampy. . . .

 

 

 

 

Postscript: Thanks reader David Navarre for pointing out this article on Wikipedia on the USS Thatcher!

USS Thatcher, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

A Meditation on Woman, in Celebration of the Feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Edith Stein was a prominent Jewish philosopher, writer, teacher, and professor in pre-WWII Germany. After reading The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila, Edith converted to Catholicism and eventually became a Carmelite nun, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She continued to write and study. During the war, Catholics of Jewish heritage were arrested by the Nazis and deported to concentration camps. St. Teresa Benedicta was executed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1942. Her feast day is today, August 9.

Much of St. Teresa Benedicta’s work was given to illuminating the role of women and their vocation. She has much to say to us today and deep reading gives echoes of the writings of Blessed John Paul II. The following is taken from “The Ethos of Women’s Professions,” a lecture given by Dr. Stein at a meeting of the Catholic Association of Academics in Salzburg, Austria, on September 1, 1930. The entire text can be found in The Collected Works of Edith Stein, Vol. 2: Essays on Woman.

“Only by the power of grace can nature be liberated from its dross, restored to its purity, and made free to receive divine life. And this divine life itself is the inner driving power from which acts of love come forth. Whoever wants to preserve this life continually within herself must nourish it constantly from the source whence it flows without end — from the holy sacraments, above all from the sacrament of love. To have divine love as its inner form, a woman’s life must be a Eucharistic life. Only in daily, confidential relationship with the Lord in the tabernacle can one forget self, become free of all one’s own wishes and pretensions, and have a heart open to all the needs and wants of others. Whoever seeks to consult with the Eucharistic God in all her concerns, whoever lets herself be purified by the sanctifying power coming from the sacrifice at the altar, offering herself to the Lord in this sacrifice, whoever receives the Lord in her soul’s innermost depth in Holy Communion cannot but be drawn ever more deeply and powerfully into the flow of divine life, incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ, her heart converted to the likeness of the divine heart.

Something else is related to this. When we entrust all the troubles of our earthly existence confidently to the divine heart, we are relieved of them. Then our soul is free to participate in the divine life. Then we walk by the side of the Savior on the path that He travelled on this eath during His earthly existence and still travels in the mystical afterlife. Indeed, with the eyes of faith, we penetrate into the secret depths of His hidden life within the pale of the godhead. On the other hand, this participation in the divine life has a liberating power initself; it lessens the weight of our earthly concerns and grants us a bit of eternity even in this finitude, a reflection of beatitude, a transformation into light. But the invitation to the transformation in God’s hand is given to us by God Himself in the liturgy of the Church. Therefore, the life of an authentic Catholic woman is also a liturgical life. Whoever prays together with the Curch in spirit and in truth knows that her whole life must be formed by this life of prayer.”

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 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!