Saturday, August 27, 2005


People rarely leave us all at once - most leave-taking is a slow process, like tanning a hide, during which we become innured to the pain. When my grandmother died last year of Alzheimer's at the age of 82, i was aware that really we had begun to lose her five years previously. There were the almost imperceptible changes of habit and personality that went unremarked for a long while, only noticeable as a pattern, really, in retrospect. There was a shrinking process as she began to inhabit less and less of her own home - foregoing her bedroom upstairs to sleep on the sofa in the living room; eating at the kitchen counter instead of the dining room. Eventually there was the awful day we had to convince her that she could live there no longer - after she had burned food one too many times, after we discovered the spoiled milk in the refrigerator and the confusion over medication. We probably should have intervened sooner, but like lovers sad to see the morning come, we were reluctant to part with our image of the woman we loved and admired.

That move from the house where she had lived for 35 years, the house she had worked so hard to pay for when my grandfather died only six months after they signed the mortgage papers - her leaving that house was like a death. The shrinking process continued as, with only a few of her prized possessions, she moved into an "assisted living" facility, into a 12' x 15' room with attached handicap bathroom. She hated it at first, but became acclimated to her new surroundings and actually took comfort in the narrowness of her orbit - as her dementia progressed, she became more and more fearful of new places, new experiences.

Then there came the day that she fell and broke her hip; after two weeks in hospital, this necessitated a move to a skilled-care facility where she would receive physical therapy. There, she had to share a room - shrinking, shrinking - and all she had of her own were some clothes and a few pictures for her bedside table. She was never able to leave that facility; she gave up on therapy, refused to eat, and died 10 weeks after the broken hip. As we settled her "estate," my mother and i remarked how sadly simple it was because of each bit of paring down along the way.

i'm coming to understand this leave-taking is something each of us must do almost constantly by the time we reach mid-life. Perhaps that's really what the famous mid-life crisis is all about - we occupy our youth with getting and spending, climbing to the top of the hill, only to see that the downhill slope on the other side is littered with things that slip away. And not just things - people, too, begin to slip away at an alarming rate once we reach our 40s and 50s. How can we ever be ready?

At the end of my street is a tidal marsh; i love to watch how the scene changes as the waters rise and fall, and it's particularly interesting at the changing of the tide. i always feel sorry for the tiny crabs and fish, though - spun one way and another as the currents change direction. Perhaps at mid-life we are like those little creatures, still buoyed forward by the surge of our strength and productivity, but being sucked back as well and forced to let go. Our clinging - to youth, to perfect vision, to stamina - only makes the leave-taking awkward, painful - and, okay, sometimes ridiculously humorous!

This week, my daughter, who has taken a job in another state right out of college, informed me that she could safely be taken off our insurance - she now has her car registered and insured in her new state of residence. This was welcome news, as she'd been dragging her feet about it for two months. However, when i called to let our insurance agent know, she asked, "So, she's no longer in your household at all?" *Gasp* Must she put it like that? Of course i want Rachel to be independent, to fully realize her potential - but i felt at that moment as if she'd been ripped from my arms! Stupid, since she's been taking her leave for years, really. When did it begin? When she went away to college? No, that's not right. That first day we took her to college, as she stood on the sidewalk in front of her dorm, waving good-bye, i had an instant flashback to the first day of kindergarten. i realized that the leave-taking had begun even then...i just hadn't known.

Monday, August 22, 2005


Tomorrow, tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the world will stream to Burgundy, France, for the funeral of Roger Schutz. Don’t know the name? “Brother Roger” founded the Taizé community in Burgundy in 1940 as a place for Christians of all denominations to be reconciled and as a focus for a ministry of peacemaking and service that eventually spanned the globe. One week ago, Brother Roger, age 90, was stabbed to death by a deranged woman during the regular evening prayer service.

I was horrified to learn of his murder – as all must have been who heard the news, for this was a good man, one who had given his entire adult life in service to God and his fellow human beings. At the outbreak of World War II, he could have remained safely in Switzerland where he was born – he was after all a sickly young man who had barely survived tuberculosis. But Roger, then 25, felt a calling to go to his mother’s country to minister to refugees. This he did for two years, with the help of his sister Genevieve, before they were warned by villagers that the Nazis had found them out and they themselves had to flee. Brother Roger returned in 1944, bringing more monks with him, and the brothers established Taizé as a community where simplicity and charity would be lived daily as a proclamation of the Gospel. Following the war, Taizé became a favorite pilgrimage destination for the world’s young people. They seemed drawn there in large part because of the music – Roger was convinced that shared music had the power to unite people from many walks of life, and the community developed a canon of simple chant, sung in many languages, designed to be accessible to all.

It was through the music that I first learned of Taizé and Brother Roger. My church is one of thousands worldwide that offer “Taizé services” of music and simple prayer in an intimate setting. Whereas all the trappings and peculiarities of denomination tend to divide and make us more aware of our differences, Taizé services unite: there are no barriers of prayer books, hymnals, traditions solidified like stained glass. Many who have felt wounded by the Church have found healing through Taizé.

Brother Roger's murderer is assumed to be insane. How else could anyone think that the world would be a better place without his influence? How could they, we ask? Earlier today, a friendly blogger posted her complaint about people who wantonly and randomly destroy property, seemingly for its own sake. What's the difference? Perhaps the same destructive force lies in each of us, to greater or lesser degree. Brother Roger had an answer, an antidote for violence - the daily practice of peace. The day after his death, one of the eldest brothers left at the community offered this commentary:

In the face of violence, we can respond only by peace. Brother Roger never stopped insisting on this. Peace requires a commitment of our whole being, inwardly and outwardly. It demands our whole person. So this evening, let us communicate peace to one another, and do everything we can so that each person stays in hope.
Each of us, in our own place, must do this work. There is no way to peace; peace IS the way.

Friday, August 19, 2005

And you give yourself away...

A sweet friend recently sent me a book, The Essence of Style by Joan DeJean, which details the rise of the fashion industry. The author, a French professor who specializes in the life and times of Louis XIV, asserts that the Sun King was almost solely responsible for originating concepts like elegance, style, marketing and brand recognition. He went about establishing France as the center of fashion and the luxury-goods trade by personal example, and he was effective because he made himself, his royal person, available to the public in an unprecedented way. It was Louis XIV who invited courtiers to his morning bathing and dressing routine - la toilette - turning a hitherto private ritual into an opportunity for voyeurism.

As the most powerful figure in society, Louis' personal tastes were of course influential; watching him bathe, perfume, powder, press and primp was the 17th century version of an infomercial. Of course his choices would be imitated by all who desired to align themselves with him, whether to seek favor or to influence others in turn. Louis made sure to promote only French goods, featuring domestic products throughout the decor of Versailles as well as on his personal dressing table. His was no dilettante interest in personal adornment; he aimed to secure France's position in the world economy, and he did so shrewdly and ably using the tools at his disposal.

Which brings me to a more modern context. i frequent a message board whose members are interested in fragrance; discussion there most often revolves around new releases, and lately i've noticed how many of those are "celebrity" releases. Why would anyone think that rappers, pop singers, actresses and athletes know a thing about fragrance? Ah, but they don't have to - their attractiveness, their image, is enough to make people, unsatisfied with their mundane lives, shell out for some vicarious glamour.

What is sad about this phenomenon is who we are choosing to emulate these days. Would an Eau de Albert Schweitzer sell as much as "Boston Rob" Mariano's Foreman? Jane Goodall Curious sounds more appealing to me than anything Britney Spears might interested in. We give celebrities their power; are they worthy? Cultural anthropologist Rene Girard calls this phenomenon mimetic desire - he posits that we don't even know what we want until we see what others have. Louis XIV understood this process intuitively and used it well in the service of strengthening his country's economy. To what end is it being played out today? The more we are exposed to marketing, the more we make comparisons, leading to almost constant dissatisfaction. Are we even aware of how we are being manipulated?

How do we learn to want what we have?
How much of ourselves do we regain in the process?

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Scents of Summer

Several of my favorite bloggers have chosen today to feature lists of their top 10 favorite scents for summer. Since my entire impetus for attempting a blog in the first place came from these women i met on a fragrance message board, it only seems appropriate to post mine, too.

Here goes, in no particular order -

Serge Lutens Santal Blanc - an amazing blend of fruits, spices and resins, with quite a bit of orris in the middle to keep it dry. Santal Blanc has that almost pickle-y quality you get from sticking your nose into a very old sandalwood box in a dusty antique shop. Extremely long-lasting, yet quiet enough on the skin to avoid being overwhelming in the heat.

Hermes Hiris - Unique among fragrances I've experienced in that it is light and fresh without watery or ozonic notes. It embodies the noble iris in all its glory - rhizome, sap and flower. One of my favorite florals, as lovely at the buttery-soft drydown as at the airy, heady topnotes.

Chanel Gardenia - with apologies to J.T. White...
If thou of fortune be bereft
And in thy store there be but left
Two loaves - sell one, and with the dole
Buy Gardenia to feed thy soul!

Annick Goutal Eau d'Hadrien - the perfect summer blend of crisp lemon and cool cypress - completely unsweet, refreshing. Unflustered, intellectual, ironic.

Salvatore Ferragamo Parfum Subtil - a recent discovery, one i've fallen in love with just this summer. Remember White House ice cream? Cherries in vanilla cream, all on a clean musk base. This is a very wearable scent - impossible to ove
r-apply, subtle as the name says, but still long-lasting.

J & E Atkinsons i Coloniali Javanese Cananga - Very "out of Africa", a perfume for adventuresses. Atkinsons weave a romantic fantasy of recovering long-lost formulae for their i Coloniali line - this scent would be quite believable on Isaak Dinesen. Cananga odorata is the Latin name of ylang-ylang, the flower of flowers. Here its heady, tropical note is poised upon a light woody base - the fragrance seems to take flight off your skin. Not terribly long-lasting, but worth reapplying.

i Profumi di Firenze Mirra - Technically i don't suppose this should be considered a summer scent - but i confess to sneaking tiny dabs, especially at bedtime, when i am longing for cold weather.
The richest, softest myrrh - as if you've taken those dark golden nuggets of incense resin, powdered them up and dusted on your skin with a silken brush. No hint of bitterness - and no sillage to speak of, as the scent simply melts into skin. This is an intensely personal, introspective fragrance - others will find you attractive, not for your scent, but for the serenity that flows out around you. (It's probably not fair to include this scent, as i believe it is available only at the perfumery in Florence. i received a jolly little bottle from a dear friend - who knows how i'll ever replace it!)

Donna Karan Black Cashmere - Counterintuitive though it may seem, spicy scents can be quite cooling. Black pepper and nutmeg blend with sandalwood and a hint of non-foody vanilla to create a zen-like aura of calm.Joy de Jean Patou - There's a fine line between love and sex and death and birth. Between exuberance and excess. Joy parfum blurs the line. Natural jasmine at this concentration does not smell of airy white blossoms; it is a beautiful stench. Indole, one of the main scent components of jasmine essential oil, is also promininent in coal tar and fecal matter. In defiance of our culture of sanitizers and deodorants, Joy revels in the heated, flushed, throbbing fecundity of nature - the profligacy of an entire glowing summer, distilled into a darkly flickering bottle.

Chanel Allure - i'm late to the party on this one...tried Allure when it first came out and was underwhelmed. But this summer i was lucky enough to acquire a coffret of Chanel parfums, Allure among them, and in the parfum version it is divine! A perfect blend of vetiver and vanilla, not too dry and not too sweet. Well-behaved enough for the office, yet sensual, too. Bergamot in the top notes is the perfume version of Sun-In. i can't tell yet if this will be an ever-after favorite, but i'm loving it this summer.

For more summer fragrance top-10 lists, check out, Blogdorf Goodman, Bois de Jasmin, Brain Trapped in Girl's Body, C'est Chic, Koneko's *Mostly* Beauty Diary, Life in Paris, Make a Mental Note, Now Smell This, Ombligo!, Seldom Nice Nowadays, Self-Styled Siren, and This Bananafish Smells Like Leaves.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Tarot of Prague

i recently acquired a new tarot deck - the Tarot of Prague, a modern deck created by Karen Mahoney and Alex Ukolov, who run baba studio in Prague. The card images are photographic collages of the city's artwork - painting, sculpture, mural, mosaic and architecture - spanning seven centuries. It is the most visually stunning deck i've worked with in the 10 years or so i've been reading tarot. Each picture appears lit from within. There's an element of fantasy, but because the figures and backgrounds are actual photographs, it is so obviously grounded in reality, too - making the images seem not so much fantastical as archetypal.

For those who want to know more about tarot in general, and to view hundreds of decks, visit this excellent, informative website.

Personally, i do not use tarot for divination. Rather, i see it as a meditation tool, a means of focusing attention. Each morning, i draw a card for the day - trying to be open to whatever insight it may offer. Because the tarot is very much about archetypes and psycho-spiritual development, there is always something! Today i drew the Queen of Cups (pictured at left - sorry for the blurry photo!). She is the embodiment of sense and sensibility - the balance between intellect and emotion. She feels her own emotions and allows others to feel theirs; she is skilled at intuitive understanding and deepening interpersonal relationships. Traditionally, when one does a larger spread - a tarot reading - the seeker chooses a card to represent him- or herself - usually one of the court cards. i identify strongly with the Queen of Cups and always choose her to represent me. So having her show up as the card of the day is both reassuring and challenging. i'm facing some difficult situations at work right now, revolving around two of my co-workers leaving. There is so much potential for hard feelings and abandonment issues, particularly as, in a small office, any change in personnel means more work - even temporarily - for those who stay. i seem to be the one lately that everyone wants to talk to about the situation. This card is reminding me that i need to pay attention to my own feelings and how they might affect others - and pay attention to how others' feelings are affecting me. Each one of us truly has the capacity to offer blessing or curse to each other; i want my actions and interactions to be helpful - part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Sunday, August 07, 2005


i think i inherited a certain amount of superstition from my maternal grandmother and great-grandmother which no amount of education, scientific theory, or logic has been able to completely dispel. My Greek GM and GGM knew all about charms of protection and taught me how to spit on people to ward off the evil eye. My GGM was a spiritual healer who brought relief to many who sought her magic and insights. But i've always told myself i knew better than that. However, scratch the surface a little, and you find how quickly i revert.

My dear husband recently bought a kayak and has been taking daily trips out onto the river near our house. Since he's not an experienced kayaker - nor terribly fit or athletic at this point in his sedentary life - i've been a little apprehensive. i admit that part of my apprehension is irrationally based on a sad memory - when i was 17, a neighbor of mine, a healthy, 35-year-old man, drowned while on a fishing trip. He had been fly fishing, apparently slipped, and his hip-waders filled up with water. He was unable to stand up and save himself, though the water was little more than chest deep. So even though my DH is not exactly going out in the open ocean, it still worries me. Beyond saying, "Please be careful" each time he goes out, i've tried to quell my fears - they are *my* problem, after all, and he deserves to enjoy his new hobby. Today, though, i flipped.

It all started this morning - we went to church as usual, and my DH was drafted to replace one of the lay readers who was ill. The appointed reading was from Jonah, the lovely little teaching story in which a reluctant prophet is cast into deep waters and swallowed up by a big fish. i was sitting there listening, and these words struck home:
"The water about me rose to my neck,
for the deep was closing over me;
seaweed twined about my head
at the roots of the mountains;
I was sinking into a world
whose bars would hold me fast for ever."
Aack! This was my exact fear, so clearly stated - and read in his own voice! i tried to shake off the feeling of dread, but i had butterflies in my stomach all afternoon as i waited to see whether he would take the kayak out.

Of course he did. Two hours went by. i distracted myself with cooking, reading the newspaper, playing with the dogs. The phone rang - caller-ID showed it was his cell phone number. i picked up, but no answer on the other end - just that ghostly "empty space" sound of an open line. i returned the call, got his voice mail. Left a message - "Call me back right away, please, let me know you're okay." When there was no call in the next 10 minutes...okay, i already admitted - i flipped. Jonah's lament running through my head, i grabbed the car keys, told my son i would be right back, and roared down the street toward the boat dock. Made it as far as the corner, where i met DH returning home with the wet kayak on top of his car.

It's not my fault, was it, this temporary insanity? i was set up - conditioned almost from birth to expect the worst, because life is fragile and the universe a dangerous place. He had tried to call to let me know he was safely back on dry land, but cellular reception is dodgy down by the river and the signal was dropped. i'm proud to say i did not cry, rage, or in any other visible way betray my madness. But here, i figure it's safe to confess. Someone spit on me, quick!