Saturday, September 10, 2016


This package is pressed between two pair of black jeans in my suitcase. As Drew and I wait at Clinton National Airport to board our flight to Atlanta then on to Paris, we watch our bags being loaded onto the plane. There it goes, my large brown Samsonite with the shiny silver ribbon.

 "A journal," the instructions specified on the What To Bring list. I already had one, still wrapped in its original parchment paper. When I bought it two months ago, I knew I would need it . . . sometime. A writer can never have too many. But I never dreamed that it would be traveling with us to France, especially to Chartres.

The Cathedral at Chartres, about an hour southwest of Paris, is a UNESCO World Heritage Center. UNESCO describes it as a "high point of French Gothic art... a masterpiece."

For labyrinth lovers, like me,  Chartres Cathedral is THE destination, as it was for pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. On its floor, under its voluminous vaulted arches, lies a labyrinth built in the early 13th century.

For the next five days, I will participate in a labyrinth pilgrimage at the cathedral, led by Dr. Lauren Artress. I will add my footsteps to the thousands of other pilgrims who have traveled through its doors and circled the labyrinth for the past 800 years.

I chose not to unwrap the journal before we left. I can hardly remember its features - flowered cover, perhaps, lined pages or blank? I anticipate peeling off the tape and unfolding the layers, much as I anticipate the journey ahead. The destination known, the details yet to unfold.

THEN . . .

Drew and I will travel through Normandy and Brittany for ten days, a whole different kind of journey.
I'll be sure to save plenty of blank pages.


Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Titanic - One Woman's Story

As Drew and I entered the Titanic Artifact Exhibition at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, we were each given a boarding pass.

Mine was ticket #17758, belonging to Mrs.Victor Penasco y Castellana (Maria Josefa Perez de Soto y Vallejo), of Madrid. She and her husband had boarded Titanic at Cherbourg on April 10, 1912, two days before the ship hit an iceberg and sank. Other particulars were listed on the reverse side.

I would not learn of Maria's fate until the last room of the exhibit, where all passengers were accounted for. Maria and Victor were guests in First Class cabin C-65. Knowing that women, children and first class passengers had the greatest chance of securing lifeboat seats, I predicted that Maria had survived. But perhaps not. She could have refused to leave her husband; they both could have believed the boastings of an "unsinkable" ship and ignored the crew's instructions, or...

I carried Maria's card around with me as I looked at artifacts salvaged from the wreck. A comb, shoe, diamond bracelet, razor, perfume bottle. What had been her story that night? What possession of hers still lay on the ocean floor?

According to the boarding pass, Maria (age 17) and Victor's Reason for traveling to New York was "an adventurous two-year honeymoon. While staying in Paris, they decided to extend the magic with a transatlantic voyage on Titanic." Victor was described as extremely wealthy.

The Passenger Fact at the bottom of the card intrigued me: "Maria's mother-in-law had warned the couple against taking a trip by sea, saying it was bad luck for a honeymoon. To fool the families, Maria and Victor left their butler in Paris, instructing him to mail several pre-written post cards to Spain while they traveled to New York and back." A ruse that backfired, badly.

The large white placards loomed on the wall beside the exit sign, row after row of names - 2208 of them; 1503 lost, 705 survived.  I scanned the First Class Survivors' list. I did not find Maria. My eyes dropped down to those Lost. Sadly, Victor was there; but not his wife. Once again, more slowly, I searched among the Survivors, and there.... there she was. She and her maid, Fermina had lived!

The boarding pass lay on my writing desk for a week. I'd look at it and wonder,  "What happened to Maria? A very young widow, her husband tragically and suddenly gone. After Titanic, then what?"  Today, I googled her and to my amazement found --

A photo....

And information...

"After six years of mourning, Pepita (name her family called her) married Baron de Rio Tovia, a man of many titles, had two sons and a daughter and lived the life of a wealthy and connected matron."
--Titanic, Woman and Children First by Judith Gellar

She died in 1972 at the age of 83.

A woman I know only through the random selection of a card with her name on it.

A woman whose story I'm privileged to know, even briefly.... and to share.

** The Titanic Artifact exhibit closes on May 30, 2016. 



Sunday, April 24, 2016

Empty Bowls

A colorful bowl
A creative bowl
A handmade bowl
An empty bowl

This bowl, made by a child's hands, sits on our kitchen counter to remind us that... 

somewhere in the world, someone's bowl is always empty.

I selected it on Saturday from a collection of equally dazzling bowls at the Empty Bowls Cereal Café in Hoboken, an event sponsored annually by All Saints Episcopal Day School.

My friend, Amina O'Kane, who is the Director of Admissions and High School Placement at the school, invited me to come. I had admired her own empty bowl months before, and wanted to learn more.


When I googled Empty Bowls, I was surprised to find that it's a project which spans almost every state in the U. S. and many countries around the world. As their website states, Empty Bowls is "an international grassroots effort to raise both money and awareness in the fight to end hunger." At each local event, individuals handcraft the bowls. At All Saints, they were created by students. The donors receive bowls along with a simple meal - soup and bread, or in the case of All Saints, all-you-can-eat cereal. The money raised at the cereal café benefits the Hoboken Shelter, which in 2015 served 182,000 meals, and St. Matthews lunchtime ministry which serves about 75 guests a day. 

I couldn't resist picking up a second bowl from the table. A bowl that grows food!! Recycled paper pulp, water and seeds -- ready to pop in the soil and water -- created by third graders. A small pink smile in the middle of one of the attached cards caught my attention, along with a delicate heart to the right. There were obviously two secret ingredients in the mix. Happiness and Love....from  
                                                               Making a Difference!

*For instructions about how to make your own seed bowls, check out NASA's Climate Kids. The seed papers can easily be shaped into bowls.


Monday, February 8, 2016

Your Own Journey

Today concludes my six Mondays (January 3, January 11, January 18, January 25, February 1) of reflection on Journey.  I could keep going and going as I now see a journey in just about everything in life; but there are other subjects that catch my fancy.

I've known since I began this series that I would end with Mary Oliver's poem, The Journey. Mary is my favorite poet. Thanks to my friend, Margie Beedle, who secured tickets for us to attend one of her poetry readings, I've heard Mary read this poem in person.

I wish you peace, courage and growth on your own journeys.

A cairn beside my labyrinth 

The Journey
by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice -
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do -
determined to save
the only life you could save. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

A 950-page Journey

My series of reflections on Journey continues…...
(For background, refer to January 3 entry.)

If I were to turn this book over, most of you would immediately recognize the person on the cover. Even though there's not a single word to accompany his self-portrait, you would know. I often leave the book turned upside down on my nightstand, on purpose, because of the severe expression on his face. Angry, suspicious...or sad, perhaps? It's all in the eyes. "Keep your distance," they seem to say.

I purchased my copy over two years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I attended a book talk by the authors, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. Since then it's been waiting on my bookshelf, almost forgotten. One of those books you have to be in the mood to begin, if nothing more than because of its shear size.

At 950 pages, the biography could be a hand weight. Sometimes it takes both hands to leverage it off the nightstand onto my lap, where I read a few pages, then hear it clunk on the floor as I fall asleep. To date, I'm on page 144.

So, why my commitment to follow the subject's journey, to keep rejoining his story night after night? Because I want to know how it all began.

On page 144 (age 23), he has no intention of being an artist. The authors make no mention that the idea has even crossed his mind. The closest he's come to art is working for his rich uncle, the art dealer. Fired from that job, he's tried teaching, preaching, being a missionary in a mining camp -- restless, "suffering great misery," as he said in a letter to his brother. When - and more importantly, why - does he pick up a paintbrush for the first time?

I know how his story ends. Tragically. Yet in only a decade as an active painter, he produced over 900 paintings and 1100 works on paper. Today, his art hangs in the most prestigious museums in the world. In 2015 one of his paintings sold for 66.3 million dollars.

With great fortune, I've stood with my nose inches away from his thick brush stokes.  I've swayed with the movement of his trees and felt the pulsating heat from the glow of his sun, painted as no one before him had painted. I imagine the artist sweating in the near-noon heat, transforming what he sees before him to what flows from his brush. And each time I've wondered about the man, about what led him to the creation before me.

Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun
Hence, I keep reading. And knowing what I know about journeys, I'm fully aware that I'm reading for more than a single event -- that so-called spark of creative genius or moment of inspiration. I'm reading for the story of a life. A journey that didn't begin with a brushstroke, with a man discovering a solitary paintbrush on his path. It's as much about the steps before, and then, the steps after.

After 950 pages, I hope to better understand the face on the cover, how Vincent Van Gogh painted not only what he saw in the mirror, but carried with him - on the inside. Even now, I place it back on my nightstand, right side up.

*Van Gogh, The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith


Monday, January 25, 2016

Listen to the Voice

My series of reflections on Journey continues…...
(For background, refer to January 3 entry.)

Art supplies. My art supplies, not my grandchildren's, even though the book says "for KIDS." Through the years, I've filled and re-filled a basket of art supplies for them - crayons, markers, paints, clay, pipe cleaners, construction paper, glue, scissors, sketch pads… and gladly joined in their projects. It's not that I haven't been creative in other areas of my life, but when it comes to drawing, painting, designing - from ideas in my head rather than stamped with instructions - I've felt stuck in first grade.    

You get the idea.

Art classes seemed scary. Everyone would be better than I. Only "artists" take art classes. I had to know what I was doing before I even signed up for the class. Obviously, my reasoning was stuck in first grade, as well. 

But something fundamental has changed in the last few years. I've started listening to voices. Voices that initially had nothing to do with art, but had everything to do with honoring myself.

Like the voice that inspired me to create a meditation room - complete with purple curtains, enroll in my first writing workshop, write a blog, lead labyrinth retreats for women, embark on a 50-state labyrinth journey and write a book about it, present at The Labyrinth Society Annual Gathering. What would have happened... if I had ignored her?

Then, a month ago, a voice whispered, "Take a look at this art class." I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I noticed a friend's posting about an online class she was helping teach - The Journey Within: A Year of Handmade Art Journals. I read the details: "creative exploration through art journaling and handmade books, using mixed media for those who want to express themselves using words and images." I paused for only about a minute and a half, long enough for my 60ish year-old self to reassure the hesitant 7-year-old. "Bring your beautiful, creative spirit along. We're on this journey together."

I've completed my January journal, a mini one, decorated with Zentangles and held together with a pipe cleaner.



I've filled it with quotes. And one watercolor - my first ever! The prompt was to find seeds, look  closely at them, then select a meaningful quote to accompany the artwork. I followed the video tutorial step-by-step, stopping and starting, dabbing and detailing. It felt like meditation.

I bravely share my creations not to say, "Look at what I did," but rather, "Look at what any of us can do."

That voice you hear? It's your own. 
Listen and step forward, with confidence, on your own journey.  


Monday, January 18, 2016

Sunday Afternoon Visitin'

My series of reflections on Journey continues…...
(For background, refer to January 3 entry.)

My father was one of six children, all born in the family farmhouse in Pine Grove, Arkansas - a smattering of farms, houses, and churches - just a "stone's throw" from Sparkman (today's population 419.) Only two of the siblings remain, my Aunt Carolyn and Uncle Nat. I rarely saw Uncle Nat during my growing up years, but Aunt Carolyn was a constant. She was the Auntie Mame in my life, with her cool sportscar and designer sunglasses, trendy Dallas apartment, accomplished nursing career, and hip Christmas presents. I wore her elegant lace and organza wedding dress when Drew and I married. As years passed, I unconsciously dropped "Aunt," and Carolyn became my friend.

Carolyn spent last week with me, transitioning from Florida to Arkansas (no, not the other way around) after retirement. Fifty years of nursing! In the evenings, she drank a glass of wine while I sipped tea, and told me stories. Stories that sounded vaguely familiar, from when my grandparents used to tell them, as they rocked on their front porch. But I never listened. Old stories. Who wanted to hear those? I do, now.

"On Sundays we'd all pile in the truck and go to church at Sardis," Carolyn began. "We'd always be late, Mama and Daddy trying to get us six kids out the door. Some Sundays, we'd have 'dinner on the ground,' with everybody bringing something. Mama's fried chicken and egg custard pies were scooped up in no time. Then we'd go visiting (visitin'). I hated it. All those adults talking and talking. To Cousin Lou Bert, Virginia and Sue's house, Aunt Liza,  Rufus, Cousin Willie, Uncle Jeddie…."

"Stop. I'm lost," I said. "You went from one house to another all afternoon? Where did all of these people live? I need to see a picture of this."

I tore a piece of paper from a sketching tablet, grabbed a pencil and placed them in front of Carolyn. "Would you please draw it for me. Start with the farmhouse and show me where you went."

She began slowly, adding more and more details as her hand moved across the page . "Let's see, our house was here, the church was here…"



Within fifteen minutes the paper was filled with lines, names, arrows - flowing from relations to friends and back again - until Carolyn had sketched much more than a Sunday afternoon journey. She had reconstructed an entire community of people who had touched her life. A map of memories.

One day soon - it doesn't have to be a Sunday - Carolyn and I will take the map and drive to Pine Grove. It may be a long day, so we'd better pack a lunch. I'll fry the chicken if she bakes the egg custard pie.
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