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Paradise regained

Three hours in the Scrovegni Chapel with Tom and Amy Worthen

Three uninterrupted hours in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova is a big deal. A fifteen-minute turn in the chapel cost fifteen euros (in the spring of 2010). On summer evenings it was possible to book a double turn, 30 minutes, barely enough time to view forty major fresco panels stacked three high and not counting all the other painted wall decorations. No time for details. There is too much information to process.

I opined about this to Amy and Tom Worthen over lunch one day. Amy said, “I may be able to help you out.” Without saying what, she promised to get back to me.

By way of background, the chapel was added onto the Scrovegni palace beside a Roman arena in the center of Padova at the end of the thirteenth century. Scarcely half a block away, the Chiesa degli Eremitani, a vast gothic structure, was substantially destroyed by Allied bombing at the end of World War II. The Mantegna frescoes on the walls of its Ovetari Chapel were shattered. The shards were preserved and early this century at attempt to reconstruct the Mantegna frescoes from the fragments was begun. What remains is beautiful but scant.

Scrovegni Chapel, on the other hand, is a compact, unprepossessing brick box of no particular distinction. The palace it abutted is gone; the Roman arena is an ovoid park strewn with skeletal remnants. In the Last Judgement covering the west wall of the interior of the chapel, Enrico Scrovegni, one of medieval Padua’s richest and most infamous usurers, kneels and presents his pristine pink chapel to the Virgin. He built the chapel to buy his way into heaven. It might easily have been reduced to small pile of rubble by an errant bomb during World War II, when the nearby Eremitani was bombed, shattering the priceless Mantegna frescoes in the Ovetari Chapel. That Scrovegni Chapel  survived is a miracle.

As for the artist, more is known about Giotto than many early artists, either because he towered so high above them, or because he had influential admirers.  The facts of his existence, derived from contracts, letters, and other legal documents, are bare bones; as for his character, we have primarily Vasari’s hagiography in his Lives. He was, the story goes, a particularly clever and happy lad of ten, tending sheep, when the great artist Cimabue chanced upon him and saw that he was drawing incredibly lifelike sheep on flat rocks with a sharp stone. That would be Panel #1 in the fresco cycle of the Life of Giotto. Although his life as we know it is a piece of semi-fiction, his frescoes are indisputably real, palpable, unsurpassed in the breadth of their humanity. Giotto eschewed the heroic physiques of the Greeks and the countless copies the Romans churned out like pancakes. Instead he took his inspiration from real people in real situations, animating both Testaments with a humanity not seen since pagan antiquity.

Amy called me back to tell me that we had an appointment at 9-30 on March 18, 2010, for an unlimited visit to Scrovegni Chapel. Unlimited. We could stay as long as we wanted. It was a dazzling gift.

Tom was an art historian who specialized in the Italian renaissance, especially in Venice. He was the perfect companion for the visit. Amy, sketchbook in hand, spent her time drawing the chapel while Tom and I circled it slowly. He didn’t mind my endless questions or strange theories. He pointed out details I hadn’t noticed and told me what part they played in the big picture so that I could grasp the overall design and inner connections of this overwhelming cat’s cradle of interconnections across four dimensions. “They can be read vertically as well as laterally,” Tom said. “The story runs across; the up and down links are thematic.”

The Virtues panels below the bottom tier of frescoes face the Vices panels across the room. They were painted in a ancient Roman technique so as to appear carved in marble. I was drawn to Charity, so famously characterized by Proust:

“…when [Swann] inquired after the kitchen-maid he would say: “Well, how goes it with Giotto’s Charity?” And indeed the poor girl, whose pregnancy had swelled and stoutened every part of her, even to her face, and the vertical, squared outlines of her cheeks, did distinctly suggest those virgins, so strong and mannish as to seem matrons rather, in whom the Virtues are personified in the Arena Chapel. And I can see now that those Virtues and Vices of Padua resembled her in another respect as well. For just as the figure of this girl had been enlarged by the additional symbol which she carried in her body, without appearing to understand what it meant, without any rendering in her facial expression of all its beauty and spiritual significance, but carried as if it were an ordinary and rather heavy burden, so it is without any apparent suspicion of what she is about that the powerfully built housewife who is portrayed in the Arena beneath the label ‘Caritas,’ and a reproduction of whose portrait hung upon the wall of my schoolroom at Combray, incarnates that virtue, for it seems impossible, that any thought of charity can ever have found expression in her vulgar and energetic face. By a fine stroke of the painter’s invention she is tumbling all the treasures of the earth at her feet, but exactly as if she were treading grapes in a wine-press to extract their juice, or, still more, as if she had climbed on a heap of sacks to raise herself higher; and she is holding out her flaming heart to God, or shall we say ‘handing’ it to Him, exactly as a cook might hand up a corkscrew through the skylight of her underground kitchen to some one who had called down to ask her for it from the ground-level above.”

Other plaques are painted between these faux-marble panels. Tom pointed to one of them in particular, its corner chipped off.

“I never fully appreciated that before,” he said. “Look at that masterful rendering of time. Every detail tells us something. This is a memento mori. The chip in the ‘marble’ represents the passage of time, an illusion reminding us of our mortality.”

He pointed at another decorative plaque between panels 19 (The Crucifixion) and 20 (The lamentation of Christ) showing Jonah’s legs sticking out from the mouth of the whale into which he is disappearing. The viewer sees neither all of Jonah nor the whole whale. “It’s a perfect miniature masterpiece,” Tom said. “The part stands for the whole. We see very little and know everything we need to know.

“The Old Testament images,” he said, “prefigure the events in New Testament panels. Jonah in the belly of the whale prefigures Christ’s death. The whale can also be seen as swallowing him and regurgitating him, which prefigures the resurrection.”

I needed Tom’s binoculars to see the lioness with three cubs high on a decorative band. “The newborn cubs were dead for three days and then the mother breathed life into them.” Tom said. “Christ lay entombed for three days.”

Bit by bit the organic and self-reflecting design of the chapel came into focus.

 As we stood before the Flight into Egypt, Tom asked me what I made of the gesture the green-robed figure on the left was making with his right hand. I said it looked to me like a narrative device to carry the eye diagonally, along the line of the strap, across the donkey’s rear haunches, toward the angel hovering above Joseph.

“All the gestures are symbolic,” Tom said. “You have to assume Giotto was making a statement with it. It’s worth looking into.”

“The storytelling is so different here from the St. Francis cycle,” I said. “There he aggressively directed my eye from event to event. These seem more self-contained.”

Tom blinked and smiled. “I was just noticing each panel is arranged to lead the eye from the foreground into the background. They turn inward.” He noted that by this point Giotto had reached a very high level of spatial awareness.

Giotto exploded the static and stylized iconographic conventions he inherited. Calaphas is so angry at Jesus he tears open his shirt (the same gesture seen in the Ira – anger – panelof the Seven Vices). The ass Jesus rides into Jerusalem is docile, humble, eyes sweet, serene, resigned. The mothers weep real tears as their children are hacked to bits in the Slaughter of the Innocents. The religious drama unfolds through human dramas. The characters’ faces grow familiar; they wear the same clothes so that we know who they are even when their backs are toward us. The images conspire toward purpose and understanding. As architecture meets our need for shelter, these pictures meet our need for transcendence. For an instant, we experience the sublime.

Tom, only six months older than me, died suddenly and inexplicably on May 22, 2019. What a privilege and honor that memorable day turns out to have been. When I was young we called such fortuitous events “brushes with glory,” moments touched with magic, radiant and rare.

It was a rare day indeed and here is what I learned:

The Scrovegni frescoes provide a key to the mystery at the heart of everything. They are a gift to us all, to remind us of the heights of which we are capable and the depths to which we can sink. Whether by virtue of, or in spite of their religious language, they encourage us to transcend ourselves.

The west wall is devoted to the Last Judgment. Everything is there, unfolding in complex narrative waves and swirls: the ecstatic peace of heaven, the torments of hell, and the peculiar existential crossroads of greed and mortal terror where Enrico Scrovegni kneels and offers his lovely pink chapel to the Virgin hoping to win her favor. He was betting on her eye being delighted and her heart warmed by the felicitous beauties Giotto created, and which still provide a direct connection to the love animating the universe.

Thanks, Tom.

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IMAGES

These are IMHO the most powerful images.

West facade, Doge’s Palace
The above, from the inside, with the Lion of St. Mark atop his “Pillar of Doom”
Main portal/west facade, St. Mark’s basilica, with great POV
A sottoportego
Front, Palazzo Dario (ca. 1480)
Rear view, Palazzo Dario
Clothing of the period
A hundred years later

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MAPS

All of these maps are public domain from Wiki Commons. The first set shows the “big picture” (including Trieste). They may look fuzzy here, but the originals are not and can be easily sized with great clarity.

THE BIG PICTURE

VENICE / LAGOON

(This one is free to use but requires crediting source [Museo Vaticano])

This is the most famous, a woodcut by Jacopo di Barbari, 1500. A huge file of it can be downloaded and scaled. I used many extreme closeups in The Balloy Boy blog. It actually has just about every single building in Venice at the time.

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Spontaneous Combustion

SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION

August 16, 1965

I boarded a state-of-the-art 747 at T5, the futuristic TWA terminal at JFK airport. I was 20. I had long hair, a flowered shirt, bellbottom pants, and everyone treated me like an extraterrestrial. My seat was beside a middle-aged black man in a pinstriped suit, impeccable if slightly out of style. His hair and beard were grizzled gray, his eyes were dark and soulful.

“Good afternoon,” he said, waiting for me to return the greeting.

We both settled into our seats. The inflight movie didn’t start for an hour. My seatmate pulled out a compendious tome on WW2 by Basil Lydell Hart but before opening it he said, “My name is Chuck,” and offered his hand.  “Nice to meet you.” 

His hand was rough, the joints knobby with work and arthritis. It didn’t go with his suit.

 “You live in L.A.,” he asked, “or just visiting?”

“It’s home.”

He nodded. “I’m from Minnesota originally,” he said, “but I live in Watts now.”

He leaned in close to me.

“Some of these white folks look scared. I heard two of them talking in the airport. One said to the other ‘I hear they’re shooting at planes from Century Boulevard’ and the other one just nods. The dumb son-of-a-bitch believed him. No black man from Watts is gonna drive to the airport to shoot at an airplane full of white folks when the Police are whooping their asses on 103rd Street. You ever try getting to the airport from Watts? It’s next to impossible. And with all hell breaking loose? A brother wouldn’t make it past Avalon Boulevard. But you’re from L.A. I’m preaching to the choir.”

“How did it start?”

“A white cop pulls over a young black kid for drunk driving when he wasn’t. The neighborhood folks gather around to watch what happens. It’s 95° degrees and everybody is sweating. The kid’s mother comes to see what’s happening and the crowd gets rowdy so cops arrest the kid who did nothing, his friend who did nothing, and his mama for talking back to them. By that time a couple more trucks full of cops arrive and they all start swinging their batons. Boom. The whole place is burning down. That’s anger, man. Righteous anger. You keep turning up the heat and eventually it boils over. That’s what happened on 103rd street. Watts blew. That’s no riot. It’s an uprising.”

Los Angeles, Thursday, April 30, 1992, 2:42 pm

The boss called to tell me not to come in to work. Riots had broken out Wednesday night at Florence and Normandie. The four cops who beat Rodney King to a pulp had been tried in Simi Valley, home to many cops, where a largely white jury had just acquitted them.

Video shot by an amateur from the balcony of his Lake View Terrace apartment was suddenly all over the news. It showed the cops working King over with nightsticks and kicking him on the ground as other officers looked on, laughing and smoking cigarettes.

“They’re looting the Sav-on on Venice Boulevard,” the boss said. “We’re packing up the computers and getting them out of here. I’m closing up shop until after the weekend. We can assess the damage on Monday.”

Our office was in the Helms Building on Venice Boulevard, only two blocks from the looting. On the second night of rioting the flames had spread in wide arcs reaching across the Los Angeles basin. The Watts rebellion had been confined to Watts. The Rodney King riots were not, and white people were getting scared.

We lived in Park Labrea, an apartment community behind the LA County Museum, midway between downtown and the Pacific Ocean, near the center of the L.A. basin. Our building was a 13-story tower. Hearing that the fires were circling the West Side, we went up to the top of our building.

We weren’t alone. A lot of people were on the roof. We had a 360° view of the basin, from the Baldwin Hills to the Hollywood Hills and from downtown to Beverly Hills, Century City, Westwood, and, on a good day, the Pacific. People who had never talked to each other before were talking. Everyone speculated about the fires which appeared to be encircling us.

We tried buying food but everything was boarded up except for the 7-11 on Third Street which had a line around the block. We decided to drive to Oceanside and spend the weekend with the in-laws. There was only one topic of conversation through our endless card game played against the apocalyptic footage on TV, the beating, the looting, the palms lining the Santa Monica Freeway into downtown burning like torches setting fire to the city.

When we returned to L.A. on Sunday evening the National Guard was camped like an invading army at La Cienega and Jefferson, two miles from work, four miles from home, spitting distance in L.A.

There were no apparent leaders. No group or individual claimed credit. The explosion was spontaneous. Like Watts, without warning, a critical threshold was crossed and desperate people revolted against a life no longer livable. Unlike Watts, the looting and fires were not confined to South Central. The outrage turned against the surrounding white communities, raising a tocsin that was soon smothered and suppressed because it was too frightening to keep top of mind, a warning unheeded.

Skamania County, Washington, May 18, 1980, 12:36 pm.

On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens, in Washington State, erupted, ripping off the entire mountaintop and covering eleven states with ash.

The pressures that caused the eruption built up slowly, incrementally, over a long time, unseen, until they reached critical mass and exploded with energy equal to 26 megatons of TNT, 500 times the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Ash rose fifteen miles into the atmosphere. The mountain fractured and a subsequent earthquake collapsed the entire north face causing the largest landslide ever recorded

It just happened, although in the aftermath its history could be read and analyzed.

American society is like that mountain. At its deepest and poorest levels, among the most exploited and oppressed, outrages mount daily. Young black men continue to be killed by police for no reason and with no consequence: Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, Antwon Rose II, O’Shae Terry, George Floyd, to name just a few. Most whites become inured to them, immune to the outrage, blinding by their own racism. Then another a critical point is reached, a straw breaks another camel’s back, another death ignites another conflagration.

The murder of black men by the police is the most flagrant outrage but the conditions of life have become increasingly untenable for 90% of the people. It is only a matter of time until they, too, refuse to take it any longer, and vent their rage and frustration. The inevitable explosion happens spontaneously, without conscious direction, no steering committee, no politburo, no talking heads. The end result of more riots and uprisings depends upon whether they are violently suppressed by the government or steered by visionary leaders to historical ends and lasting outcomes.

Independent of our wills, these social forces have reached the breaking point, despite the pundits and politicians and populist blowhards. When the uprisings occur, as they inevitably must, the only important question is who can lead them and see them through to a just conclusion? Will winning strategy and tactics yield lasting change built on the only true and stable foundation, equality? The tragedy is not that riots and uprisings occur, that neighborhoods burn, that stores are looted, that people are injured; the tragedy is that they happen for nothing. Only clear-sighted and united leadership can ensure that they lead to a brighter future free from the crippling shackles of racism, greed, and corruption.

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WE

WE

Pronoun; plural of I.

We is our most important word because, let’s face it, I has brought us to the brink of extinction.

From the pharaohs to Aristotle, from cogito, ergo sum to superego, throughout the rise of Christianity and the modern world, it’s all about I. I am what matters. It’s every man for himself. If I steal or sin, I can repent and God will forgive me. Am I my brother’s keeper? What about what I want?

We says we’re in this together.

We is when the choir assembles. The barista, the ad rep, the Uber driver, the personal trainer, the teacher, the statistician, all coming together, taking off their hats and scarves and gloves, offloading their emotional baggage, breathing deeply, and preparing to make music. The paradigm shifts. There is no I in together. It’s all of us, and this is what most terrifies the terrified. Going from I to I to I leads to “others” being invariably called out as somehow less deserving, less righteous, not I.

Of course We is also what happens in armies, when I is expunged and us becomes the operating principle, always defined in opposition to them. Our team versus their team. But where teams are formed to win something—a game, a war, a cause—the choir’s only purpose is to sing.

In all creation, only homo sapiens operates on the principle of I. Observe the birds and the beavers. There is not an I among them. They function in tandem. The survival and wellbeing of the community prevails. Together they thrive. Ditto wolves and elephants, ants and dolphins, and, we are learning, even trees.

We don’t often think of flora as sentient but advancing science informs us differently. Trees are social beings, with individual brains linked through the fungi on their roots to a worldwide neural network. They thrive in communities. They exchange information. They have been observed healing their sick and aiding the animals and insects cohabiting the world with them. Linked by common cause, they function for the common good.

Messages are also reaching us from the farthest reaches of spacetime that all of the infinite galaxies are interconnected by mysterious, mutually influencing strands of commonality. Everything is connected, from the miniest micro to the mightiest macro, composed of the same stuff, unspooling like DNA or dervishes in a cosmic dance, numberless, moving to the music of the spheres.

We is inclusive and fundamental.

Admittedly, we has gotten us into a lot of trouble. It has been distorted by megalomaniacs to direct the collective we against an other, an outsider, an enemy, a roadblock to the absolute power of the supreme I. This is not an inherent flaw in we. It is an appropriation of its power, a usurpation, a perversion. As a result, many object to the subordination of I to we and it is easy to understand why. The lessons of slavery, genocide, and war, whether powered by religion, greed, or fear, have made collectivized society look pretty bad. But it is shortsighted to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Everything happens at a particular time in a particular place and bears the imprint of complex forces, some readily identified, some veiled and distant. Their convergence creates a unique moment. What happens then is a product of that moment. It is definitely not what necessarily happens in other circumstances at other times. Like fingerprints and sunsets, each moment is different.

Think back to the choir.

The individual voices, each with a unique range and timbre, no two alike, thirty, sixty, eighty of them, blend into a unified sound. I becomes we. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They become music. They become that universal language requiring no specific words in common to enjoy it, no analogous customs, or particular diplomas, or religious affiliations. People across the globe all groove to the same beat even though the rest of the time they may think they hate each other. In the choir each member suspends I to become augmented, enhanced, richer, more brilliant and more beautiful.

I represents an isolated and fragmented universe of individuals. (I am nothing.) We represents the world of the community. (We are the world.)

We is all who trust that the common good, in human life as in the natural world, is more important than the wishes and wants of individuals.

Imagine a moment—now, or not far from now—when I is subsumed in a powerful WE to sing a new song vibrating sympathetically with the butterflies and the bears and the lullabies of the whales, the music of people everywhere actively healing our world instead of trashing it, sucking it dry, and throwing away the husk.

I can’t do it. Even you can’t do it.

We can. That’s what we does.

It binds you and you and you together.

We can do anything.

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Venice in winter

Recent photos of a deserted Venice in the time of the Corona Virus reminded me of December 19, 2009, when these photos were taken. The city experienced a confluence of snow and a flood tide. Most streets and squares were deserted. Curtailed by circumstances, life continued. I decided to take a walkabout and see what was going on.

The was the view from my apartment when I woke up.

My street outside the garden gate.

Campo Santo Stefano

Setting up the market at Campo San Maurizio

View from a bridge

Piazza San Marco

The porphyry Four Tetrarchs (ca. 400ad) huddle against the Basilica under mantles of snow.

The passarelle across the Piazzetta.

The water rising by the Piazzetta dei leoncini

The porticos of San Marco underwater.

Heading toward Rialto Bridge

The Grand Canal at Rialto Bridge

I took the vaporetto home.

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Venice at the brink

None of them is rich, none poor; they are all the same. They eat the same abundant fish. Their houses are all alike, boats tethered like horses beside them, and no man envies another’s mansion. In fact envy, which rules the rest of the world, is unknown among them. They spend their days raking the shores for salt.
Cassiodorus, Senator and Praetorian Prefect, describing the people of the Venetian lagoon in a letter dated September 3, 547 AD.


Venice was always improbable, a city where no city should rightly be, built on sandy islets in a shallow lagoon altered by every storm and swamped by unpredictable tides. Venice would never have existed at all if, in 452, Attila had not invaded northern Italy, sacking and razing cities on his march to Ravenna, the capital of the Western Roman Empire. The natives of Aquilea, Padua, Concordia, Altinum, and other Roman cities, fled to the islands of the lagoon for safety. Patricians brought their bricks and marble with them, the rest carried what they could on their backs into poverty and exile.


The lagoon has always been dangerous and elusive. A flat-bottomed boat could navigate the shoals and shallows one day only to run aground the next, after the tides scrambled the sandbars and erased familiar channels. That same treacherous mutability also protected the refugees from invasion. The islands could be reached from the mainland or the open sea only by those familiar with the lagoon’s mysterious, ever-changing byways. Invaders from the mainland or the Adriatic ran aground, their ships wrecked before gaining the prize hovering mirage-like and unreachable. Instead they ignored the refugees moated in impoverished isolation. The boggy islands held nothing anyone wanted except salt and fish.


The miracle began slowly, first at Malamocco, on Lido, a barrier island keeping the Adriatic Sea at bay, then on Torcello, in the marshy north lagoon, and then on Rialto – the high bank – the center of the tightly knit archipelago where the current city sits. Over centuries, pounding tightly packed trees into the mud, the Venetians created a substrate upon which they could build wooden or brick houses and, later, marble palaces. (Over one million trees, turned into stone by an anaerobic sheath of mud and salt, support the marble weight of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute alone.)

Walking through present-day Venice one can still see flat Roman bricks carried from the mainland during the exodus, repurposed in buildings of Byzantine origin next to Byzanto-Venetian and Gothic masterpieces between which are wedged still other masterpieces of the renaissance and baroque periods.


Early on every square inch of the Venetian archipelago was filled in with buildings, one against the other, separated only by time – centuries – not distance. That so many of these buildings, some dating back almost two millenia, remain where they have always stood distinguishes Venice from almost anywhere else. A walk through Venice is a walk through time. The Gothic exists cheek by jowl with the Renaissance, the Byzantine with the Neoclassic, pressed so tightly together a knife blade couldn’t be slipped between them.

Palimpsest of Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance, and Neoclassic.

Each narrow and twisted calle is a treasure trove. Each canal, from Grand to small, is upholstered with the Venetian narrative: the desperate beginnings, the creation of the twelve-hundred-year Republic (the longest standing Republic in history), the rise of vast commericial wealth and maritime dominance, and then the years of loss, ending with the precipitous collapse of the Republic under Napoleon, and the dire aftermath of the modern era.


The wealth — artistic, historic, and human — of the islands of the Venetian lagoon beggars the imagination. All is now at risk by the ravages of modern civilization, beginning when Napoleon filled in canals to accommodate his horses, thus blocking the smooth circulation of the tides that cleansed the city, continuing through the pumping of groundwater for industry that threatened to sink the city, through the incursion of diesel and modern boat engines whose vibrations shake the foundations of the buildings, the massive hordes of tourists stressing an infrastructure never built to accommodate their staggering numbers, the invasion of monstrous cruise ships into the lagoon adding insult to injury, and the inexorable sea level rise and related impacts of climate change threatening to bury Venice beneath sea water.


Rapacious greed and stubborn denial of real dangers have poised the city at the brink of extinction. One of the greatest treasuries of human social and intellectual achievement has been scheduled for demolition by our refusal to take these threats seriously. The mega-billion dollar MOSE, touted as the city’s last best chance to protect itself from further ravages of the increasing high tides that regularly inundate it, is mired in corruption, incomplete, with no proof it would work even if completed. The awareness that climate change threatens the world as we know it has yet to spawn massive and concerted resistance to the climate deniers, to demand the changes that may, possibly, prevent further damage, still leaving open the question of whether what has been done can be reversed.


Magical Venice, the city as living museum, is a perfect symbol of the impasse we face. Venice, la Serenissima, is both priceless repository of human achievement and victim of a perfect storm of insatiable greed, callous indifference, and political folly. She can either disappear like the countless vanished species extinct in our time, or become a red hot center of resistance, a battle ground to save the past from the future.
 

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Zelda has left the building

Zelda was the first dog I fully embraced, for better or worse. I was living in Italy when Phyllis and Steve adopted her. She had been rescued from an infernal puppy mill where she had been forced to have litters and was subjected to an amateur caesarian from which she still bore the physical and psychic scars.

She took a long time to recognize and accept our love, to stop cowering, and to trust us without fear. Phyllis was always and forever Zelda’s number one, Mama, her safe place in a cruel world. Steven was number two, Papa, who instantly fell in love with her and took such delight in her wiggles and wags and kisses. Their relationships with her were formed while I was still living in Italy, so when I returned two years later I was number three, Papa due. It took time but soon she accepted me into the pack, the three humans devoted to her happiness and well-being, and she loved me lavishly, her kisses – those little licks on my nose –my reward for welcoming her into my heart.

During the first years, when Phyllis left for work in the morning, Zelda would skitter down the stairs (tikka, tikka, tikka – the noise of her nails on the wooden floors and hence, her nickname), jump onto our bed, wedge herself between Steven and me, stretch to her full length like a boa constrictor, impossibly soft, and sleep with her nose to the wall, buried in our pillows (I often wondered how she was able to breath like that) until we awoke.

I was the one who always slipped her treats and bits from our plates, and although I still remained number three (she was fiercely loyal) that won me special winks and licks of appreciation. She knew exactly how to perk her ears and stare at me to convince me that even though she had just eaten her own dinner she was starving to death for those few morsels left on my plate. She adored risotto (licking out the pan especially), cucumbers, tofu, and reggio parmigiano.

While I recuperated from my hip surgeries she lay beside me to comfort me and brighten my days. I did my best to make her final days as easy as possible, so that our constant and unfailing love would continue to light her way free from fear and pain.

She was a ferocious guardian who saved us from countless ax-murderers lurking behind every noise on the porch and every car driving down the alley. Her bark, so outsized for her 20lb body, warned the world at large that we were under her protection and any threats had best stay clear of our home.

Her ears were the softest things in all creation, spidery brown-and-white velvet. They were especially beautiful when she perked them up at the prospect of treats or a belly rub. I could stroke them forever. She was my flubsie, my flub-a-dub, so close to the ground (legs barely three inches) for so towering a presence. She had a thousand names, Zelda, Tikka, Fofana – our wifi is still named Bobika Fofana, another of her pet names (from the “Name Game” song, which provided so many of her soubriquets: “Tikka Tikka Bo-bika, bonana fana fo-fika…”)

Her huge round eyes, so full of tender expression, were sublime. They earned her the nickname Ernestina because they were so earnest and unguarded. Steven named her that. “Look,” he would say, “she’s Ernestina now,” when she raised her imploring eyes.

Steven had special little noises he would vocalize into her ears when he rubbed them with his beard, throwing her into a special ecstasy all their own. It was Steven who taught me to recognize her smile and who articulated the subtle language of winks and head bobbles they exchanged. Sometimes he called her Frau Wigglebottom because when she wagged and walked her gait was exactly a jaunty wiggle. If we had sex when she slept with us she would go berserk, licking us in inappropriate places and wanting to be part of the game.

Steven rubs Zelda’s ears with his beard.

She conditioned our lives in every way as much as we conditioned hers. We always considered her when we made plans to go out or to travel. She hated being alone when mama, papa, and papa due went out together. We arranged our affairs as much as possible so that someone was always home with her. When we brought Mona into the pack some of those anxieties were, if not alleviated, at least ameliorated, shared with her little buddy. What a god-awful racket the two of them made barking together!

Zelda’s love for us was unquestioning and absolute. No love is as unconditional as a dog’s. Human love is rarely without questions, doubts, accusations, petty dissatisfactions, recriminations, disagreements, or discontinuities. Zelda never wavered, even when we had to take her to the vet (she hated strangers with needles and car rides), give her a bath (which she also hated), or give her a haircut, or pare her nails. She always rebounded with a few licks to the nose. Whenever she licked Steven’s nose he would say “thank you, Tikka.” Therein lay a complex emotional conversation and I soon learned to do the same. She understood. She knew more than we imagined, and nothing marred her perfect love.

Now that she lies in our garden under three feet of earth, that is my takeaway: Love like Zelda. Fiercely hold the pack (broadly defined) in my heart, love them unquestioningly, and be grateful that they buttress me, defend me, nourish me, sustain me, and hold me as dear as I hold them.

Darling Tikka, if the essence, what we casually refer to as the soul, has an eternal presence in spacetime, I hope you still feel my unfailing love as much as I hold on to yours. Thank you, Tikka, for making our world a better place.

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An Orthodox Ethiopian encounter

First I heard drums. Then the chanting. I followed lines of people in ethnic clothing streaming through the park toward the island where the chanting and drumming came from.

I assumed they were Somali but I was wrong. They were Ethiopian, attending an Ethiopian Eastern Orthodox liturgical rite celebrating the finding of part of the true cross by St. Helena (the wife of Roman emperor Constantine who moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium in 324 AD). She was apparently informed of its whereabouts by a bonfire.

The chants are Byzantine in origin. A knowledgeable gentleman from one of the churches assured me the chants were “very, very old.” Six local Ethiopian Orthodox parishes provided the chorus. “The man with the round hat,” my informant said, “is the Pope of the diocese,” and that reminded me that one of the reasons for the schism between the Church of Rome and the Eastern Church was submission to the Pope of Rome, as well as doctrinal disagreements such as the meaning of filiusque in reference to the Holy Trinity. The Eastern Church held that it was heresy to proclaim the Pope of Rome the singular Vicar of God on Earth and believed the heads of other branches of the church had equal standing.

The Eastern Church extended into Ethiopia at a very early date, the tradition is a long one, and the chants, Byzantine in origin, are also distinctly Ethiopian. The chanting lasted for at least an hour after I arrived. The crowd was festive and respectful of the liturgy.

I didn’t stay for the lighting of the bonfire. The speeches after the liturgy went on far too long, I was hungry, and dinner was ready at home.

Liturgical robes.
The bonfire waiting in the wings.
Young and old.
Strolling the island.
Heading home.

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Apologia pro vita sua

or, Why I take the same pictures every day

On my first visit to the physical therapist after my second hip replacement in six months, she asked me what my goal was? Going up and down the stairs was still a problem. She wanted me to think out in time to the thing that would let me know I was where I wanted to be.

“Walking around Lake Phalen,” I said.

I hadn’t been able to do that since we first moved in three blocks from the lake. One of the major reasons we bought this house was its location in one of only two significant green zones in the city. We loved the house itself but also especially because of its proximity to the lake. Steve was already dreaming about canoes and kayaks and sailboats.

 During 2018 I could walk some of the lake, half at most, and not without significant pain. This year I made it all the way around without significant pain. It was truly a milestone. Now that I can, I walk around the lake almost every day. I do it with joy and pride and ambition. What’s the next goal?

In addition to being my exercise it is my meditation. My mind lets go of its petty preoccupations, spins out, and then opens up to the language of the trees, the birds, the wind, and the water. I have two or three basic variations of the lake walk, but it is substantially the same landscape and waterscape no matter which one I take. Yet it is anything but the same walk every day. Each day is full of delightful surprises.

The difference comes in various scales. The largest scale is the change of seasons, which is dramatic and all-encompassing. Walking in summer means shorts and tee shirts. Walking in winter means layers of down and ski poles. As much as I hate the worst of winter, beauty can still be found in unlikely places. Spring, summer, and fall are so abundantly beautiful, each in its own way, not as a state but as a process, that I am content to be where I am, doing what I am doing. The feeling of contentment in life is rare and evanescent. The broad natural and psychic space the lake creates in the immediate environment is a zone of quiet, of the wind through the leaves, the ripple of the water, the songs of the redwing blackbirds, and the fragrance of wildflowers and flowering trees. The impact of the natural surroundings is enveloping, visceral, and gives rise to a spontaneous feeling of well-being.

Downscale from the changing seasons are the daily changes within a given season. In spring and summer native wildflowers bloom in successive waves. Fragrance also comes in waves, first the lilacs, then the catalpas, then the lindens, then the sagey sweetness of the fields of wildflowers, each with a unique scent that sometimes saturates the air and sometimes teases from the distance.

The light changes hourly, and is different on each side of the lake, as different as light and shadow. The butterflies and transparent dragonflies and bees are creatures of an instant, there and gone among the wildflowers before you notice them.

Nothing is the same and nothing changes. Through the year’s round the banks of trees and flowers reproduce themselves before my eyes, burst like Fourth of July fireworks, flame red and pink before shedding their foliage to reveal their stark skeletons etched in ice and snow. It all comes. It all goes. It never dies. It returns each spring and explodes each summer and is consumed in flame each autumn like the phoenix that will rise again when the Earth tilts at the proper angle to the sun.

I take pictures every day because, although I walk the same paths I see different things and my eye glimpses different instants of sublime beauty. Sometimes I can catch that unique beauty in a photo. Sometimes not. Sometimes your eyes don’t see the thing I took the picture of, and it looks like a hundred other pictures I’ve taken in the same place. But it’s not the same picture and it’s not the same place, at least not to me. In each instance I am striving to capture something unique in its own singular instant, a particular confluence of space, color, sky, water, trees, shadows, and clouds with something at its center I haven’t seen before.

If nothing else, my walks around the lake make me happy and keep me sane. The photos are souvenirs, physical memories, artifacts of the revealed sublime, at least to me.

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