The letter

“The act of writing itself is like an act of love.
There is contact.
There is exchange too.
We no longer know whether the words come out of the ink onto the page,
or whether they emerge from the page itself where they were sleeping,
the ink merely giving them colour.”

Georges Rodenbach


(image the web)

In yesterday’s oh so long and convoluted post, I told you that I would share
the letter I had written to my birth mother, had the agency found her
and found her willing to be contacted, she would have received the letter.

However, as we know, they did find her but she made it clear, through an attorney’s
office, that there is to be no contact whatsoever.
And therefore, no shared letter.

She is 83 as I am soon to turn 60.
Yet there is no room for contact.
Odd given our ages.

I thought I’d simply post the letter here because maybe, one day,
it might make its way to her…or maybe even better, it might
make its way to someone else who may need to read it.

You may ask why would I even bother, especially when my birth mother is so emphatic
as to not wanting to have anything to do with me or that part of her past.

There is currently an odd phenomenon sweeping our nation.

State after state is voting on and passing right to life bills or heartbeat bills.
Bills that “infringe” upon open abortions.

Something I am finding hope in.

Hollywood is going nuts over all of it—clamoring to boycott Georgia
if our state’s bill stands.

What is it about the making of movies that has anything to do with abortions or not
to have abortions???
This knowledge simply eludes me
Yet the Hollywood scene seems to think it very much does affect movie making…who knew?!

It seems there is a real fear among many progressive liberals and members
or this culture of death, that has its grasp around our nation’s neck,
that the legal manifestation of abortions, Roe v Wade, will be overturned.

That, in the minds of many with a henny penny doomsday verbiage, will send us all stepping
back into the dark ages of coat hangers and hidden alleys should such a thing actually happen.

And yet state after state is voting, Governors are signing and change is in the air.

And so I was intrigued when I read of the tit for tat between two our Supreme Court
Justices…Justices Ginsberg and Thomas.

Thomas has made it clear that it is time that we as a nation and court revisit Roe v Wade,
while Ginsberg is openly opposed.

With Thomas being the conservative while Ginsberg is the liberal, their positions
are not surprising.

The fact that the late Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsberg were on polar opposite
positions on many court proceedings, but were still dear friends, was oddly a comfort.

People who couldn’t agree politically or legally yet who could still be civil and enjoy
one another’s company was a sign that we could still hold onto human decency, discourse
and civility despite our feelings or views.

We had hope in that alone for our humanity.

Yet sadly now…opposition rarely, if ever, will be civil or cordial, let alone sit at
the same table and commune with opposing human beings.
It is part and parcel of their manifesto…and yes, it is a manifesto.

Thomas and Ginsberg are currently in a bit of a war of words…
and it has to do with the use of a single word– “mother”

When Thomas stated in a lengthy response regarding states and the
rise in these “right to life” bills while using wording that “a pregnant woman or mother” etc…
Ginsberg bristled back not over the point being made but rather over the single word…
that a pregnant woman is NOT a “mother”.

I find that lone word to be a crucial concern and the pivotal lynchpin in all of this
current hysteria.

The concern that many people can view a woman as pregnant…as in yes, a mother to be…
compared to those in opposition who want to divorce the idea of mothering from pregnancy.

For years, we have heard that just because a man could help make a baby did not
necessarily make him a “father”—as in, impregnating didn’t go hand in hand with parenting…

We see that, do we not, in the hundred’s of thousands of single women households.
The lack of male role models in the lives of so many children.

And so now we’re looking at pregnancy as a condition of burden and inconvenience
rather than one of hope and anticipation.

And it is in this vein of motherhood, that I am reminded that pregnancy
is about mothers and fathers and children…end of sentence…
no matter how we try to redefine it…

And so I wrote a letter to a woman who was once a mother…and chances are
was a mother later on in life…
A letter from a child to a mother
A letter from a woman to another woman…

Maybe my non-delivered letter will provide a little comfort to someone else who
is finding themselves at a perplexing crossroad…because God can see
the bigger picture that I cannot see…and so I yield to the Holy Spirit and share…

More on this Roe v Wade and heartbeat bills later…

Hi, My name is Julie Cook—-but you most likely know me as Sylvia Kay—-
as that is the name that I learned was on my original birth certificate.

I have been told by the Family First Adoption Reunion Registry that I must first include a letter
written to “my birth mother” prior to any formal contact made by the agency.

The form asks me to include 10 questions that I am most interested in having answered….

When I initially thought to begin this search,
I felt more of a disconnect from such questions and very generic in my approach…
but throughout the past several weeks that I have known that the agency has been searching for you,
I have found my thoughts and feelings shifting to some degree.

Firstly and foremost, I do want you to know that I “turned’ out ok—-
I am happy, healthy and well adjusted.
As I will be turning 60 in November, I can look back and say, yes, this has
been a very good life.

I taught for 31 years at Carrollton High School.
I was the Visual Arts Instructor as well as the Dept. Chair of Fine Arts.
It was a very fulfilling career —-one that I “retired” from in 2012 in order to begin
more focused care for Dad who had been diagnosed with dementia and was beginning to really struggle.

When I moved to Carrollton from Atlanta following my graduation from the University of Georgia,
I met my husband on a blind date.
We married in 1983.

We have one son, your grandson, who is now 30 and a father himself.
He has a 13-month-old daughter and their son James is to arrive around the end of April/
the first of May.
Of which makes you a great grandmother—but of which you may already be.

I have always considered my adoptive parents as my parents.
My mother died at age 53 from lung cancer…I was 26.
Dad basically fell apart at that point and I found myself in the role of parent.

He eventually re-married 10 years later following mother’s death,
but that was not an ideal union.
Dad passed away in 2017 from cancer.

I had always told myself that I would not “search” for my birth parents until
Dad had passed away as I never wanted to hurt his feelings…
I never wanted him to feel that he could possibly lose me.
And of course he wouldn’t——but it was just something I had always told myself——
that if following his death, there remained a possibility, I would then, and only then,
peruse such a quest.

Always being a part of a loving and accepting family never,
however, made me forget that I had another family somewhere “out there.”

I was a history major before I ventured into education.

History has always been very important to me.
And the funny thing was/is that I never truly knew my own history.

Once I became a grandmother, I knew that I wanted my grandchildren to know their
true genealogy.
Where they came from?
Where were their true roots?
As well as what was their real medical history?

That is also something I’ve also wanted for my son.

Doctors have always asked me about my health history and yet I could never
definitively answer,

I am a deeply committed Christian and I have a very strong faith.
So I want you to know that I have no regrets or animosity regarding your decision of
having put me up for adoption.
Questions, yes, but regrets, no.

There is, of course, the natural curiosity and those ‘whys’ can be nagging.

I’ve always told myself that I have been a good person and was the type of child
that anyone would love to have had…I’m just sorry you missed that.

And yet I also know that God’s hand has always been leading my life, leading me,
even when I never truly realized it.

I don’t know if you will ever agree to open your heart or life to me, and that’s ok.
That will be your decision.
And I will honor that decision.

I am certainly not looking for some sort of fairytale Oprah type of moment.

I would, however, love to meet you—the person who carried me for nine months and made a very
selfless decision to offer me my life…with the best possible way you knew.

I have pictures I would love to share with you—-pictures of me as a baby, shortly after
leaving you, then pictures throughout the years as well as pictures of your grandson
and now great-granddaughter.

I look forward to possibly meeting you.

With love—-Julie (Sylvia Kay)

The life of a lowly gargoyle or how hard work pays off

There are two kinds of people, those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group; there is less competition there.
Indira Gandhi

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The image above is indeed that which you think, a gargoyle. Well, sort of a gargoyle and not just any sort of gargoyle mind you. This gargoyle, simply put, is a humble rain spout. And rather than being a simple gargoyle or a lowly rain spout this little image is actually a lasting representation of one man’s life’s work. Look closely and you will notice that this particular rain spout is holding the hammer and chisel of a stonemason. He also wears the leather cap and apron of a workman from what history labels as the Dark Ages.

Our friend here is located high atop the facade of the Prague Castle or what is officially known as St. Vitus, St. Wenceslas, St Adalbert Cathedral. It is a massive “fortress” that dominates the skyline of this former land of Bohemia comprised of the secular governmental offices along with the spiritual hub of Prague. No notable castle per se but a cathedral for the ages.

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There has been rule and worship on this site since 880. The beautiful gothic masterpiece we see today slowly started to rise upward in 1344 and took all of 600 years to finally complete. Imagine the army of skilled workman and craftsman of the 12th century who were to begin the arduous and dangerous task of building a Cathedral for the ages. No cranes, no dozers, no jackhammers, no technology, no computers–just the strength of hundreds of laborers.

All cities of worth and merit, during these “dark times,” all vied for the greatest and grandest church possible—all wanting their spires to rise higher and greater than the competing country and city. Places so grand and glorious that pilgrims would feel obligated to journey to, paying homage to their great God, while helping to off set costs with the donations to the church’s coffers.

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I don’t know, I’m sure that there are plaques, statues, stained glass windows throughout this massive Cathedral, or seat of the bishop, that most likely commemorate those who conspired to commission this massive undertaking. I know the names of the saints to whom this church is dedicated but as far as who had it commissioned or oversaw the inception to this marvel of its time of birth, I’d have to consult a history book… and no doubt, it would have been the current king / ruler (from Luxembourg I believe) and the local bishop…along with the blessing of that time’s current Pope.

But as for the one who toiled day and night, day after day, month after month, year after year, straining, carving, laying, lifting, moving—those who actually did the labor…well, I know him, and you know him,– he was the simple stonemason and he is now immortalized for the ages in stone–in the very stone he no less carved.

So who ever says that those who do all the work never seem to get any credit? Here we have a lowly stonemason 800 some odd years after the fact of his time spent chipping away on this massive cathedral still hanging out high atop the city of Prague—still working, still performing an important task, still with little to no recognition for his efforts, yet still very important efforts as he now diverts rain from the roof.

Here is to all the craftsmen and workman (and woman too) who lived, worked and died building, erecting, creating the wonders that we all travel the globe today to admire. I rather admire the fact that yes, on the inside of this glorious Christian marvel those important people of the 12th century are clearly honored and recognized, but it is to the work that is still going on outside… still going strong after all of these many years, that I find quite wondrous. Here is to the lowly stonemason! 800 years and still going strong!

The dark was not so dark

“Whoever has received knowledge
and eloquence in speech from God
should not be silent or secretive
but demonstrate it willingly.
When a great good is widely heard of,
then, and only then, does it bloom,
and when that good is praised by man,
it has spread its blossoms.”
― Marie de France

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(photograph: a section of floor tile at Sainte Chapelle/ Paris, France/ Julie Cook/ 2011)

Both the image and the author of the quote date to medieval France; the Church from the 13th century and the poet to the 12th century. We so often equate the medieval world to a “dark age” or a time of ignorance cloaked in misery, darkness and disease—but it was a time of so much more than our simple assumptions limit.

Masterful architecture as evidenced by the gothic spires built during these dark days, now spanning centuries of time only to continue reaching toward the heavens today. The lyrical music and poetry of the merry Troubadours who wandered the lands of France and Italy singing their way into the hearts of both lord and lady. St Thomas Aquinas,13th century, one of the most important Doctors of the Church, is undoubtedly one of the foremost theologians and philosophers still widely and deeply studied to this day—brilliant minds, brilliant engineering, brilliant music all seemingly cloaked in supposed ignorance, darkness, superstition and disease.

On this new day of this new week, be not deterred by naysayers who wish to relegate you to “less than” or to the impossible–great things are all around us, just waiting to be revealed–often in the most unlikely of places. Let not historian nor so called “expert” tell you anything other than “yes, it is always possible”. If you think it, there are always possibilities.

Be not secretive or silent as God continues to bestow gifts on us all—be willing to share what gifts you have been given–allow your greatness to spread and blossom. Be not deterred.

Holy Week, Fra Angelico and The Convent of San Marco

As we solemnly enter into this most sacred of weeks of our liturgical calendar, I am reminded that this is not only one of the most holy of times for Christians, but with the observance of Passover beginning at sundown this evening, I am aware of the significance that this week has for many of us throughout the world.

As an art teacher and as a person who has spent a great deal of time looking at the relationship that art, in particular painting, has with the surrounding world, I suppose it just makes sense that I should spend this week, this most solemn of weeks, Holy week, looking through that same lens—the lens of art.

I’ve made mention before, in my little “about me” section, that I have a love of Renaissance art, with the emphasis being on the early end of the Renaissance spectrum. Whereas the works of the great masters such as Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Botticelli—–the larger than life Italian masters I love so much— are indeed beautiful to behold with their use of dark and light– chiaroscuro, the use of extreme perspective in relationship to foreshortening, the beautiful depiction of the human body with emphasis on tone and muscle mass, the beautiful layering and translucent application of color—striking and stunning to those of us who view their works today–for me, however, it is the Medieval works of the Middle Ages that best captures my appreciation as well as imagination.

I don’t know if it is because of the strikingly simplistic style, the often austere subject matter or the mere fact that these artists and artisans were doing the best they knew how to do with the limited knowledge of building, perspective, science, travel and medicine of their day. From the precision of the illuminated manuscript to the muraled frescos of a monastery’s wall, my attention is most captivated by this most mysterious time of our human history.

We are discovering that the Dark Ages, as this time is most often referred, is not so dark after all. I think our oh so modern minds feel compelled to consider those who went before us always as “less than.” They are “less than” in their overall wealth of knowledge. We must not be so arrogant in our thinking as it will be, at some unknown point in the future, that another generation will look upon us and our limited knowledge as just that, “less than.” Therefore categorizing us as lacking, limited, ignorant and simple.

There is beauty in the simple as well as in the complex. It is just a matter of how one chooses to “see” what it is one is viewing. If one chooses arrogance for the manner in which to view previous generations, using the current world as the be all to end all gauge, then anything and everything other than the immediate will be “less than. That is unfortunate. The current generation is what it is, in large part, due to the myriad of previous generations. The building of knowledge is scaffolding and layering of first learned, with next learned, continuing on to a continuum of learning.

We have a tendency of looking back on previous generations and their accomplishments with a prejudice based on our current knowledge. That is often a shame as it prevents one from a deep appreciation for the wonders discovered and practiced in such public forums. What appears flat, static and “immature” to us, the modern viewer, was once considered new, vibrant and complicated. It’s all a matter of one’s perspective. It is my hope that as we take this limited look back, and it is important that we do look back, that we will empty our thoughts of our prejudices based on our current knowledge and allow the due appreciation and joy these early builders, painters, sculptors—artists and artisans deserve.

When studying art history most of us have a very small and limited exposure to the actual art we are exploring. So often our exposure is limited to a picture in a textbook, a reproduced poster, a pixilated digital image on a tablet, computer screen, smart board, or television screen. These are basically two-dimensional images of a two dimensional subject. The connection between viewer and, in this case, the artwork, is seemingly one-dimensional—meaning limited. It is all flat and most often the emotion involved is flat.

Every once in a while it is a picture that we view, usually as a child or impressionable learner, which captures the imagination. Perhaps it was an illustration by N.C. Wyeth from the story Treasure Island that drove us on a lifelong quest to one day seek out a tropical beach or to explore the wooden ships of days gone by. Perhaps it was the illustrations of Gustave Doré in Dante’s Inferno, which gave us our most tangible view of Heaven and Hell. For the most part, however, we do not make the emotional connection when viewing a piece of art in such a limited capacity such as that of a book or screen.

I think one of the regrets I have for the way in which we live, often isolated and too busy to know or care otherwise, is that so many of us never have the opportunity of seeing “famous” art work face to face. I can remember standing outside of the Uffizi in Florence just wishing I could have all of my students with me. I thought that if they could just be here, seeing this in real life, it would make a difference. It would affect them, they would be the better for it, it would all make sense, it would move them and they would now understand. They would be the better for it all just as I was for standing there myself—

Art, real art, good art, historical art—it is this which gives us our humanity. Now I know some of you are about to jump in, arguing about art—art for art’s sake, what makes good art good?? This is not that debate—there is no debate here, this is a precursor to looking back. And that is through the eyes of one of the most prolific times of creating art.

And so this was my mindset when I was visiting Florence.

Fienze, as it is known in Italian, is the seat of modern thinking and doing.
Of course some may argue that would actually be Rome, but I’ll argue any day that it is Florence. The birth of the great time period known simply as the Renaissance seems to have sprung forth from the very volcanic ground of the Italian peninsula, which birthed the snakelike Apennine mountains range, the Italian backbone, as well as the headwaters of the Arno River. The irregular and non-navigational Arno, which flows through this enlightened city with its very own fickled Italian ways and its own buried secrets. From the business and banking magnates of the de’ Medici dynasty which helped to create an economically rich location drawing people to this fast growing powerhouse of cities, to the religious and political reformer Girolama Savonarola and his bon fires of the vanities, Florence’s history is a rich as it’s gifts.

And so it was on my 2nd trip to Florence when I was enveloped in just a small thread of the rich tapestry that is known as Florence. There is a small Museum that sits on the northern end of the city. This museum is within walking distance of the famed Academia Gallery, home to Michelangelo’s massive and beautiful David, as well as the Uffizi– albeit a bit of a haul down to this most famous of Florence’s museum located near the Piazza della Signoria. However it is this particular small and unassuming museum which was first a convent/ monastery, home to a group of Dominican monks, that draws my attention. The Museum of San Marco.

It’s setting is still that of a monastery/convent—two interchangeable words for a cloistered religious group of either monks or nuns—San Marco is quiet and lacking the throngs of tourists that flood the more well known museums in this city of museums. There is a peace that prevails the grounds of this once holy site. The area in front of the museum is semi-park like with benches and shade trees. Upon entering the simple, unadorned museum/monastery, if it is summer, one is greeted with a sudden change in temperature. There is a welcomed coolness in the air. Florence, in the summer months can be a humid sauna where just the mere act of breathing becomes difficult. Couple that with the influx of thousands of tourists, jostling for space and air, a place like San Marco is a required respite.

There is a reverence felt within San Marco. I suppose that is because when entering you are suddenly transported to the time when this was a cloistered convent. The monks entered and most likely never left the grounds until their death. I don’t think much has changed to this cloistered edifice since it first became a Dominican convent in 1438. My understanding is that there have been some structural changes and modifications over the years—the opening of ceilings and windows, but over all, it remains as a simple and honest claim to its inception.

The “Glory” which brings one to visit San Marco is not it’s historical presence in this historical city. It is not the simplistic beauty, which calls one to come detoxify from the drowning seas of tourists or the sweltering heat. It is, however, the beauty of what enriches the otherwise barren walls of this convent, which draws the curious, art patron and pilgrim a like.

When I travel, I like to consider myself more of a pilgrim rather than a tourist. I travel seeking the reasons for the beginnings, the reasons of importance, always with an eye gleaned toward the sacred and the holy to wherever it is I may be wandering. I travel with a sense of purpose—to understand, to appreciate. I hope to be made better by the journey. I still may take pictures, head to the big sites, eat the good food, but it is the hidden that I constantly seek. I have never lived my life on the mere surface. I sink down. There comes responsibility and a heavy graveness to living so deeply—it can be burdensome and overwhelming, at times depressing, but it is a life worth living as it provides glimpses of the Divine in an otherwise overt secular world.

Upon entering the “museum” there is a small enclosed garden. Guests will see a small chapel area on their left with the first of what visitors come to see—the frescoed paintings of Fra Angelico. Fra Angelico translates to “angelic brother.” This is a name that he was given most likely after his death as an honor to the type of life he lived. He is also known as Beato Angelico or “blessed angel.” He has long been called Blessed but it was in 1984 when Pope John Paul II officially recognized Angelico as “Blessed”—meaning he could be venerated or recognized as truly virtuous. The name he chose, however, when he took his vows and was consecrated to his order and to his faith was Giovanni.

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Fra Angelico was born, in what historians believe to be, 1390 in an area north of Florence. His given name was Guido di Pietro. He was an artist but also a Dominican friar. He most likely began his artist endeavors as a young apprentice working along side his brother, also an artist and monk.

Vasari, a renowned artist in his own right, but best known for his biographies of the Italian Renaissance Artists, wrote that Fra Angelico was “a simple but most holy man.” He stated that it was Fra Angelico’s belief that one could not paint Christ unless the artist was, himself, Christ like. Before beginning each painting, Fra Angelico would devote himself to prayer.

Visitors to San Marco’s enter the main building where the “cells” of the individual monks are located as well as the sacristy, dinning hall, and library. There is a small area also dedicated to illuminated manuscripts, which are on display under protective glass.

As I climbed the steps up to the 2nd level, where the monk’s cells are located, I was immediately reminded that it was the middle of summer in Florence, Italy. The air was almost stagnant. Suddenly I stop climbing the stairs as I see something that I have seen numerous times before. It is large, larger than I imagined, the colors are soft yet very strong. A sheet of glass protects it. Her body is that of a shy demure girl. The angel who stands before her, Gods’ messenger, kneels before who he knows to be that of the future mother of God.

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The Painting of the Annunciation by Fra Angelico greets all those who climb the stairs to the 2nd floor just as it did hundreds of years ago when the monks would climb these same stairs in order to retire to their individual cells. Mary and the angel, Gabriel, are positioned in a garden and logia–an area that looks strangely familiar. It is the grounds of San Marco.

As I make my way around the hall there are approximately 45 cells—some cells are along the exterior walls and the others make up the interior wall. The cells are small rooms; some have windows, the cells along the inside wall do not. I can only imagine the bitter winter cold, as the summer heat is proving unbearable. It is however what is painted on a single wall within each cell that draws the visitor to imagine a monk’s time spent in the lonely spartan cell.

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There are paintings of the Crucifixion, the mocking of Christ, the Deposition, the Resurrection, as well as the Nativity, along with the Baptism of Jesus. Various saints, such as Saints Augustine, and Dominic are depicted in many of the paintings. Mary the Magdalene, Mary, Jesus’ mother and Martha are also present in many of the frescos. The frescos were to provide a focus of meditation and reflection, as well as for a bit of comfort, for each monk. The often windowless “cell”, with most likely only a small mat for sleeping, has no other distraction or comfort. A monk’s primary task is that of prayer, contemplation and reflection of the Divine.

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Fra Angelico did eventually venture out from this monastery, painting other significant works with one of those being located within the cavernous Vatican. In the small private chapel for Pope Nicholas V, frescos of the lives of Saints Stephen and Lawrence, adorn the walls. Whereas the message is a bit different from those frescos found on the walls at San Marco, there is no denying the quiet beauty and style of the mystical artist Fra Angelico.

I wish that it was possible for all of us to travel, at will, visiting the places scattered throughout the world where the treasures and masterpieces, as well as the forgotten or the private, pieces of art lurk and dwell. To behold an altarpiece, a painting, a fresco, a statue face to face, eyeball to eyeball, verses a mere printed image in a book or elsewhere—is, for some, life changing, for others, inspirational—only leading to even greater visions.

On this particular day, in a place a world away from my own life, I am confronted with a historical moment captured in time, on a wall, in a convent that was originally intended as a reminder for a simple monk. It is on this day that I become that simple monk, as I am reminded of a brief encounter that would change the world and would also change me, forever.

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