All the World’s a Stage

The Globe

I was one of those young college students who struggled to decide what path to follow in preparing for a career. I began with an unspecified arts and sciences major and changed directions multiple times. I even dropped out for a time because I was so confused about what I really wanted to do with my life. In the end I graduated with many more hours than usual, ultimately majoring in English and Education with a heavy dose of mathematics courses for good measure. By that time I saw myself as a purveyor of literature, and I dreamed of inspiring students to love Shakespeare as much as I do. I carried visions of my favorite high school teacher, Father Shane, in my head and hoped that I might inspire a new generation of young people to appreciate the beauty of the the written word as much as he had impacted me.

To my surprise my first job was as a mathematics teacher, something I viewed as a temporary status wrought by a dwindling market for newly graduated educators. I assumed that within in year or so the economy would right itself and I would soon enough be dramatically quoting lines from Othello and demonstrating the art of writing. Somehow I instead became branded as someone capable of instructing students in the algorithms and formulas of algebra, geometry, probability and statistics. It became an unbreakable trend, and soon enough my preferred mode of work. Still, there hovered in the back of my mind an undying love for literature, grammar, linguistics and composition. The artistic side of my nature needed to be unleashed, but would have to learn how to express itself in unique lessons for teaching proportion and the wonders of circles.

Once I retired from my career I returned to my roots, writing almost daily, reading and rereading some of my favorite authors, and immersing myself in the beauty of language. I even enjoyed tutoring a student or two in the ways of interpreting literature and then writing about metaphors and other tools of language. If found great joy and relaxation in having the time to devote myself to explorations of the ideas that I have always so loved.

Still there remained a longing to visit the land where so many of my favorite authors had once lived and to experience the history and culture that had so molded them. The number one entry on my bucket list was to travel to London and its countryside, and I was determined to one day make it happen. It was with great expectations that I recently crossed “the pond” and had the opportunity to walk in the shadow of some of the greatest authors of all time, not the least of which is my favorite, William Shakespeare.

The original Globe Theater where Shakespeare’s plays were performed was destroyed long ago, but a replica now stands along the Thames River offering seasonal productions for those desiring to get a feel for how the Elizabethan world might have been. It is an outdoor venue with a large open area for the “groundlings” who must stand during the presentation with three levels of seating on the same type of narrow wooden seating that the more prosperous patrons of old might have enjoyed. The only nod to comfort in the arena are the small cushions that may be procured for an extra fee to soften the harshness of sitting on a hard surface for three hours.

My traveling companions and I went to see The Merry Wives of Windsor, a comedy that might not have been my first choice but was nonetheless the offering for the season. It was a greatly modernized version of the rollicking farce featuring the crowd pleasing character, Falstaff. The members of the company played well to the audience just as the actors of old most surely had done. Their light hearted banter kept all of us laughing and enjoying the ridiculousness of the story.

When intermission came I learned that the members of my family had little idea what was happening. They had not taken entire courses on the works of Shakespeare as I had. Only my sister-in-law Becky was somewhat attuned because I had gifted her with a translated version of the play since she was worried that her English might not be up to speed enough to understand the nuances of a Shakespearean production. I hastily describe the premise of the play and each character’s role in the tale. After that there were more laughs and enjoyment coming from my family, and I felt a small sense of satisfaction in being a purveyor of understanding for them.

I was literally floating on air as we emerged from the Globe Theater at the end of a riotously fun evening. The night sky was clear and illuminated by a million points of light from the city of London. I walked across the Millennium Bridge in high spirits as I marveled at my good fortune, and considered that the course of my life had gone full circle, returning me to the passion of my youth. I thought of Father Shane and gave him a silent nod of gratitude for instilling me with a love of all things literary. I felt quite complete as I considered how well the course of my life had gone. There was something very Shakespearean about the way that I was feeling and the contentment that filled my heart.

As if to remind me that life is filled with comedies and well as tragedies, in the midst of my elation my brother Michael ran into a low barricade, did a complete somersault, and banged his head on the pavement in view of St. Paul’s Cathedral. His glasses were broken, his body was bruised, and we worried that his injuries were severe. With the usual aplomb he brushed away our fears, but the bubble of perfection in which I had been floating returned to reality. It felt as though Shakespeare himself was reminding me of the vagaries of life that are the stuff of both tragedy and comedy.

I shall never forget my evening at the Globe Theater. I have seen better plays and more superior acting at the Alley Theater in Houston, but those entertainments did not feel as sacred as my pilgrimage to the place where the undyingly prescient words of the Bard still deliver their universal messages. More than ever I knew that “all the world’s a stage,” and I have been a player in its never ending plot.

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Victoria and Albert

Victoria and Albert

Until the reign of the present day queen, Victoria had held her office longer than any other monarch in the history of Britain. Her influence on Europe and the world was enormous and the story of her relationship with Albert became the stuff of fairytales. She was the transitional figure between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, seeing and bringing changes to the country that brought the nation into the modern world. Her children and grandchildren had a profound effect on history in two major wars and their impact continues into the present day. We all seem to have a kind of fascination with Queen Victoria, and in particular her consort, Prince Albert.

Victoria and Albert were first cousins who fell in love, married and together had nine children. Albert’s influence on Victoria was enormous and while she clung tenaciously to her own independence as a monarch she supported many of his ideas for modernizing the country that she ruled. He was a somewhat forward thinking man with varied interests that kept him continually engaged. After his death Victoria went into a state of depression and mourning, never again wearing anything but her widow’s weeds. 

After watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace our group traveled by Tube to the Knightsbridge area of London where the Victoria and Albert Museum is located. The station exit revealed a lovely neighborhood filled with trees and refined looking buildings. Only a few steps away was the museum that we were seeking. It is an imposing structure that opened up into a decidedly open and airy hall once we were inside. It showcases a cornucopia of art, sculpture, textiles, furnishings, ceramics and decorative pieces. Founded in 1852, the museum was named for the queen and her husband. It houses a permanent collection of more than two million objects, and best of all there is no charge to see most of the works of art.

After first stopping for a brief respite and a small snack we wandered from one section of the building to another delighting in the glorious sampling of art that was on display. I was particularly taken by one hall that featured works by Rodin and other sculptors. We enjoyed watching a young woman creating a pencil drawing of one of the sculptures. She told us that she had been working on it everyday for weeks and she was in hopes of completing in on that day. She mentioned that many artists find inspiration at the Victoria and Albert, and I too felt that there was a lively spirit to the place that made it something more than just a repository for old things.

I was particularly taken by an entire hall that featured the craftsmanship of Islamic artists. The rugs, textiles, vases, bowls, and woodcarvings were so delicate and uniquely colorful. They seemed almost to have been crafted by heavenly personages rather than humans. There was a lightness about them that was otherworldly. I was transfixed by the beauty and found a kind of serenity in simply gazing at the various objects.

Another room was set up to show the clothing and furnishings of various eras. It was so interesting to the trends and the fashions of each historical period. I found myself marveling at how small the sizes were compared to what we use today. We humans have certainly grown larger over time thanks to the abundance and variety of food that is now available to us. The everyday diets that we take for granted were once the domain of only the wealthiest, and even they did not enjoy the miracles of interstate commerce that bring us delights from all over the world.

As someone who has always loved fashion I delighted in a room that featured women’s clothing from different eras and decades. I am old enough to have remembered the lovely fitted dresses and suits that the women wore in the nineteen fifties and the mini-skirts and mod styles that I donned in my college days at the end of the nineteen sixties. The styles that were featured were so lovely and amazingly so classic that if someone were to wear them today they would no doubt look quite fashion forward.

The museum complex features a large splash pool where youngsters played excitedly while their parents watched with unadulterated joy. I smiled at the relaxed and lively spirit of the place where every person seemed to have a contented smile permanently affixed to his/her countenance. I imagined that Prince Albert in particular would have been quite proud that even us common folk were able to view so many treasures. I felt so welcome and so relaxed there and might have stayed far longer but for the fact that we had a reservation for Skye Garden and needed to depart.

I spent my last moments in the gift shop which was the most wonderful of all such places in London. I purchased two tea towels crafted from extraordinary patterns. I plan to use them whenever I have a tea time with my grandchildren or my niece. I also chose an apron that was so lovely that I can’t imagine actually using it while cooking. Nonetheless it will be nice to don at the last minute for the Sunday dinners and special occasion extravaganzas that I so love to provide to family and friends.

In a single day I had mulled over the long history of England and the role of royalty in the modern world. Somehow the Victoria and Albert Museum had helped me to understand the symbolic significance of the monarchy. I suspected Victoria and Albert’s influence in making more recent kings and queens more caring about the people. I felt more and more kinship with the idea of having a royal presence and I somehow began to realize what the Queen represents. 

And Still I Try

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I don’t just like to write. I also love to read. I am in awe of great writers, and they are many in number. Some of them are friends of mine while others are strangers who become like friends through their words. There are those who have a knack for choosing just the right words, the most stunning imagery, the clearest poetic phrasing. I am often moved by their ability to convey a universe of ideas in the space of a sentence or paragraph. These are the true masters among us whose canvases are blank sheets of paper and whose art is created from combinations of letters, words, and punctuation. It’s a simple enough exercise, and yet some of us still draw stick figures when we attempt to write, while others join the infinite with their masterpieces. I am transformed by their work, even while I am a bit jealous of it. I want to reach their level of of excellence knowing that my own efforts are mostly feeble, and still I try.

I was listening to a program on National Public Radio that spoke of the emotions elicited by great art both visual and audible. Music by far is the most likely to stir something in our souls that brings us to tears. Studies show that paintings are often the most vivid representations of life, but we humans rarely gaze at them long enough to become as emotionally involved as we do when we hear songs or symphonies. When we read we often skim so quickly over the words that we absorb only a minimal appreciation for what they are conveying, but when those same words are acted by great players we may find ourselves sobbing. Music and acting are so fluid, while canvases and manuscripts may appear static, leaving us with little more than a passing idea of what they actually represent. When we actually take the time to allow our minds to feel the content of a great work of visual or written art we are transformed.

My father had an appreciation for all forms of art. He played music while he read, a daily routine that included hours of perusing newspaper columns, books of poetry, novels, and nonfiction. He returned to stanzas and passages again and again. Repeating the rhythms and phrases that most appealed to him. He memorized the best of them, ready to quote them in appropriate moments. Bookstores were his galleries, places where he found hidden jewels that appealed to his senses. He held books and printed papers as though they were treasures to be treated with the highest regard. He transferred his love for the written word to me. He showed me how to be discerning in my search for the artistry of a great poet or author, My high school English teacher, Father Shane, transformed my sensibilities into an art form of itself by insuring me that being a studied appreciator of great writing is a kind of accomplishment in its own right.

The best writers among us invert the world as we see it, turn it upside down and inside out making even the hideous beautiful. They appear to have a gift, a natural genius that makes it easy and inevitable that they will leave us breathless with their creations. Still we know from stories and examples that they have to work hard to hone their craft. They don’t simply peck out five hundred words in an hour to reveal thoughts and ideas so memorable that they will last through the decades and centuries. We hear of F. Scott Fitzgerald driving himself almost insane in his attempts to reproduce the beauty of The Great Gatsby. Shakespeare’s works were both brilliant and ordinary depending on which of his plays is being considered. The demon of perfection haunts writers and sends them into fits of desperation. There is no feeling as dreaded as having a block that creates an almost impenetrable wall between ideas and final copy.

I wonder how a J.K. Rowling is able to fashion and sustain a story and characters so perfectly that her books become beloved treasures, keepsakes to visit again and again. How does a Tolkien create entire worlds with a make believe history that seems so real, while others are one trick ponies or abject failures in spite of Herculian efforts? Is it possible to push ourselves to find our own inner genius and then demonstrate it to the world, or is the mark of greatness limited to only a select few?

I read, and read and read, learning new ways of saying old things. I practice and practice, but find myself falling short of the goals that I set for myself. My time is growing short. I am not a Grandma Moses who will suddenly stun the world with my talent, and yet I would like to be. I would so enjoy finding that sweet spot that might touch a place in a reader’s heart that makes them cry for joy. I want to transcend the ordinary and find my personal best, which I sense is buried somewhere inside of me. I suspect that I will know when I have managed to get closer to my ultimate goal, but I worry that there is some calculus that will keep me forever making only closer and closer approximations of what I want to achieve.

Reading and writing have become my routines. I push myself to exercise my mind the way some work on their bodies. I find peace in my experiments with words, and inspiration in the genius of those who have already accomplished what I hope to one day achieve. Writing is my Holy Grail, my Mt. Everest, my nemesis and my consolation, and still I try.

Let’s Get This Thing Going!

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In just a little over I week I’ll be flying off to London. I’m currently in that frantic state of mind in which I just want to board a plane right now, and be done with all of the anticipation. I’ve been scheduling a full calendar of events for weeks now, and I am beginning to worry that if we don’t just get things going something is going to happen to blow the whole thing up. Sadly a lifetime of experience has taught me that the best laid plans often go awry. I get especially anxious in May given that my father died so unexpectedly in that month just before we were supposed to have a family gala at the beach on Memorial Day. It is the time of year when my mother also died the day before a retirement party that my daughters had sweetly planned in my honor. I’ve found that all too often when I fill my calendar with grand expectations too far in the future something almost always happens to change my course. I suppose that’s why I prefer a vagabond approach to life. I simply go whenever the urge hits me, and I’m rarely disappointed.

Traveling to London is a long held dream of mine. If only I can get there without too many glitches I’m certain that I will have a glorious time. My first challenge will be the flight. I always become anxious at an airport, not because I am afraid of flying, but because I absolutely hate the process of making my way to the plane. The lines are long and the ways of doing things are constantly changing. I don’t relax until I have maneuvered my way through all of the checkpoints. I truly admire those young women that I see with young children in tow because I would no doubt go insane having to herd little ones in addition to taking care of myself. I have to take deep breaths not to come unglued and frighten the TSA agents. Luckily I’ll have my husband, my brothers, and my very stable sisters-in-law to keep me grounded and point me in the right directions.

Once we actually arrive in London I know that I will be happy with whatever happens. We have reserved tickets to all sorts of places, but in all honesty just being there will be good enough for me. Most of the time my favorite thing about visiting a place is just walking around observing the people and the vibrancy of life. I don’t need to go inside anywhere to have a glorious time, but nonetheless we have a hefty schedule for the two weeks that we will be there.

My husband was talking about how we will have to be sure to allow time to eat, but in truth all I need is a bag of fruit or some nuts and I am fine. I rarely go anywhere and think about food. I’d rather use the time that I have exploring. The idea of spending hours in an eatery doesn’t appeal to me at all when there are palaces and towers and churches from hundreds of years ago to see. I want to take in the sheer magnitude of the British Museum and walk through the universities where Newton and other geniuses once studied and worked. I look forward to riding the Tube and feeling the heartbeat of a great city.

We have tickets to see The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Globe Theater. The Shakespearean comedy is not even close to being a favorite of mine and I realize that the present day theater is only recently built replica, but it will still give me a feel of what the Elizabethan world of so long ago might have been like. I’m brushing up on the story of Falstaff and his antics ahead of time so that I will be able to wholeheartedly enjoy being part of something that has endured in literature and the arts for hundreds of years.

We plan to travel to Bath and Highclere Castle of Downton Abbey fame, to York and York Minster. We will journey through the Cotswolds and hopefully get a taste of life in small towns. I hope to see farms and fields of livestock, and maybe sit in a pub of an evening to speak of the wonders that I enjoyed during the day. I want to take in the old and the new, the Tower of London as well as the Tate Modern and the London Eye. I hope to stroll through gardens and down tiny hidden alleyways.

I expect to leave with memories that will remain in my mind for the remainder of my days, but I am becoming so anxious to get things going that I can hardly sleep at night. I worry that there has been far too much time for fate to enter the picture and turn things topsy turvy. I suppose that I am filled with Shakespearean forebodings that will probably never unfold, but my mind is in hyperdrive as I wait, and wait and wait.

Travel is a glorious experience. I’ve always found ways to enjoy every minute in every place that I have ever visited regardless of the weather or other unforetold events that changed the direction of my plans. I know that all I need do is get to London and everything will work out for me, and so I impatiently attempt to calm myself. I will soon enough return to the land of my at least half of my ancestors, the people who gave me much of my history and appearance. I plan to revel in discovering what their world might have been like.

In the end I remember that they left the places that I will visit, and came to the new world where they became Americans through and through, Yanks who fought in the revolution and patriots who served with the Union Army to preserve the nation. In many ways my trip will be in honor of the people whose hard work ultimately provided me and my brothers with opportunities unlike anything that they ever knew, and the financial wherewithal to travel for pure enjoyment. I will remember and appreciate them as I tour the land from whence they came. In the meantime can we please just get this thing going!

Being Ourselves

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One of the hardest things in life is to be brave enough to be yourself

—-Bradley Cooper to Lady Gaga before their performance at the Oscars

It seems as though the whole world is suddenly in love with Lady Gaga. In the movie A Star Is Born she shed the outrageous costumes and makeup that has always been so much a part of her onstage persona and instead looked into the cameras in all of her natural glory. Without gimmicks or electronic orchestrations she simply sang and showed the world her inner beauty and vulnerability and strength. It landed her an Academy Award for her music and allowed her to come close to winning one for her acting in her screen debut. I suppose that we all love the movie both for its tender story and for the truth that in those celluloid moments a true star of enormous merit was born and her name is Lady Gaga.

I like pop music and I have enjoyed rocking and singing along with Lady Gaga in hits like Telephone, Bad Romance, and Alejandro. I smiled at her goofy costumes that I never thought she actually needed to attract attention. I liked her music just as it was, but I suppose that in today’s market there have to be ways of standing out from the crowded field of would be artists. It was when I heard Lady Gaga sing a duet with Tony Bennett that I first understood what astonishing talent she had. She stood next to him in a black evening gown reminiscent of the 1940’s and without much more than the accompaniment of a piano sang a torch song that displayed her voice as never before. Later she sang the National Anthem and both surprised and thrilled the crowd with the realization that she was much more than just a flash in the pan of music.

Still, it was other information that I had learned about Lady Gaga that made me a dedicated fan, someone in her corner for the long haul. I was tutoring students at a local high school when I met a sweet young man who was struggling not just with mathematics but with all of the kinds of angst that torture teenagers. He was trying to find himself and to determine the direction in life that he truly wanted to follow. He was a bright and reflective individual who constantly considered probing questions about the world and his place in it. He worked hard to improve his knowledge of math, but also was dedicated to critically thinking about life in general. He often spoke of both his fears and his dreams and I enjoyed being of small help in his journey of self understanding.

At one point he had an opportunity to apply for a spot at a conference for teens sponsored by Lady Gaga. He asked me to write a letter of recommendation for him which I was more than happy to do. Not long after he excitedly announced that he had been chosen to participate in the gathering of young people from across the United States. I was happy for him and felt that the committee that selected him had been wise in noticing how earnest he was to learn more about coping with our human condition.

The student returned to our usual tutoring sessions with a renewed spirit not just about his academics, but also his feelings about himself. He glowed with a new confidence and spoke of how inspiring all of the sessions had been. He showed me photos with the friends he had made and breathlessly described how he had surprisingly been tapped as a leader. Then he talked about Lady Gaga and how she had motivated him and all of the kids to love themselves and be proud of whomever they were. He showed me a video of her speaking to them that was so encouraging and understanding. He felt as though she understood the struggles that he and the others had been enduring. He noted how her concern for them showed in her facial expressions as she seemingly spoke to each of their hearts.

When I listened to him and then to Lady Gaga’s words I felt her compassion and sensed her wisdom. I understood why he believed that she was targeting him with her gaze and her advice. She was not a star pandering to her audience but a human with a generous heart hoping to help heal those that where broken or confused. It was a moving experience for me to see just how much she really cared about the teens who had come to find some kind of solace from her.

I’ve since learned that Lady Gaga is from a big happy Italian family. She enjoys old fashioned Sunday dinners with them and is unabashedly proud of her heritage. She is a sensitive soul who worries a bit too much and like many is sometimes her own worst critic. All of her natural beauty and talent and vulnerability came through in her movie portrayal under the direction of Bradley Cooper. What we saw on that big screen was as though a butterfly was emerging from a cocoon and we rejoiced at the wonder of it.

I suppose that most of us are romantics at heart. We enjoy a good love story and A Star Is Born is certainly one of those, but it is also a story of illness and addiction. I believe that given her real life efforts to help those who struggle it is little wonder that Lady Gaga’s role as an unconditional lover was a perfect part for her. Every aspect of the wonderful person that she is burst from the screen and into our hearts.

As we watched Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper perform at the Academy Awards we witnessed a personal chemistry that may be the love of friends, the love of collaborators or perhaps even a bit of romance. Whatever it was came directly from Lady Gaga’s heart and Bradley Cooper’s belief in her. It was so true and good and devoid of guile that like my student we felt as though she was sending us all a personal message, telling us to be brave enough ourselves. There is nothing quite as beautiful.