At this time of year, I like to celebrate the arrival of longer days by sending a little something by mail. It’s a little old-school but I have this idea that people might like to receive something that has a stamp, that you can hold in your hands – and that’s not a bill.
Here’s the online version of my postcard (and if you’d like to receive the real one next year, you’re welcome to contact me with your address).
On February 1, we’re halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In Celtic regions, this was traditionally a pagan feast day to celebrate the lengthening of the days. Literally, it is a return to the light. I love this increasing daylight on a physical level, as well as a metaphorical one. It’s wonderful to see the sun more, and to feel as though we’re all crawling out of hibernation.
Catholicism eventually coopted the day, and it became St. Brigid’s Feast Day. A patron saint of Ireland (and of beer!), she founded an art school and was quite likely a lesbian. St. Brigid’s crosses are still hung above doorways in Ireland on Imbolc to protect a house and its inhabitants.
This time of year is so full of promise. Here’s to longer days, new beginnings – and more paintings!
While in Venice with jet lag, awake all night, I learned that Sue Grafton had died. This hit me rather hard. She was an author whom I almost felt like I knew, in the way that you sometimes feel you “know” a celebrity you’ve never met. I introduced myself to her books one day as a fourteen-year-old when I stopped by the library to get a book to read on my lunch hour during a summer job. It was A is for Alibi, recently published. I’ve always been a mystery fan; this one was about a young, female private investigator named Kinsey Millhone who is sassy, street-smart, intelligent, and independent to the point of being almost neurotic. A next-generation Nancy Drew and Miss Marple, living in a parallel universe to Jessica Fletcher, and a soul mother to Veronica Mars, who wasn’t even an apple in anyone’s eye yet. Like me, I’m sure lots of women and girls saw something of themselves in her – as did Ms. Grafton, who admitted that Kinsey was her alter ego. I read somewhere that Ms. Grafton’s inspiration was her divorce – unable to sleep, dreaming up ways to get away with murdering her awful husband after something else he’d done.
I loved all of this, and went back for more. At that time, the alphabet only went to C, so I had to wait a year for each further installment. As the alphabet played out, Kinsey continued to be a feminist role model and pioneer for this new type of female detective. Meanwhile, the books expanded their scope a bit to discuss social issues; in one, Ms. Grafton tries to plausibly recreate and solve a real-life cold case from Santa Barbara, California (the real-life setting for the fictional Santa Teresa). That book’s appendix lays out the facts of the real case, and a plea for information that could bring Jane Doe home to her family, and her killer to justice.
The books became a traditional, yearly Christmas present, a constant way to mark time over the years. Right up through grad school, I was reading the then-current novel (R is for Ricochet) in a hospital waiting room.
Around this time, due to work and school, I fell off from reading the new book as soon as it came out and then pining for a year or more while waiting for the next (the precursor to binge watching Netflix!). Just a month or two ago, I read that Ms. Grafton had published Y, the planned second-to-last book. I made mental plans to catch up with the last 5 or 6 books that I’d missed, and to reread the entire series in the lead-up to the publication of Z.
Then I heard about her death, and I’m sadder than I can say.
After this summer’s publication of Y, she hadn’t yet fleshed out, let alone written, Z. Her daughter said that, given her mom’s (well-known) hatred of adaptations, there would be no ghostwriter or posthumous additions to the series. There is no Z. As the family statement read: “As far as we’re concerned, the alphabet ends at Y”.
I once read that Ms. Grafton called this series of books “my life’s work”, and that struck something in me. As a fellow artist, I feel an ache for an unfinished body of work that was so, so close to being complete. I wonder how Ms. Grafton made peace with it.
Going from US Pacific time zone to Venice, Italy was a nine-hour time difference, and I was struggling. My journal states, in a mix of Italian and Spanish: “Io sono en una guerra contra il jet lag!” This meant sleeping half the day (not my style, but I simply couldn’t help it!) and staying awake until 4:00, 5:00 or 6:00 am.
I quickly ran out of guidebooks and other things to read. Italian TV (lots of game shows) is OK only in small doses. After a light skim through news from home (I tread lightly these days) and ruing the lack of activity by the Red Sox in the offseason, I was looking for ways to pass the long nighttime hours.
I remembered an old horror movie I’d watched once, Don’t Look Now, that took place in Venice in the winter. I had vague memories of Donald Sutherland, walking through foggy streets and catching glimpses of a red-coated figure who may or may not have been following him. I found it on YouTube (full version!) and proceeded to watch it on my phone in all its cropped, tinny-sounding glory.
Here’s the thing: I really liked it. Some flourishes feel a little over-the-top in the way that only a film from the 1970s can be (clothing and Sutherland’s facial hair, naturally; the volume of the score, and a sometimes overwrought cutting back and forth to red ink stains symbolizing blood). But the things it gets right are wonderful: tension, grief, scenes of art conservation within the church.
The best part was watching the city of Venice take the stage as an important character. Venice is a city of narrow alleys and canals; it’s entirely for boats and pedestrians, and it’s made up of glances. Indoors, yes, you can stand in a church and stare at artwork as long as you want, but outside…You catch glimpses of people before they turn down another alley…they cross your path up ahead and are visible for just a second before the wall blocks them from your view again…a boat passes by and then you’re looking at its stern as it heads away from you. That kind of looking is foreign to Americans, where country roads provide an approach and city blocks are long. We’re used to having the time to visually consider our surroundings. The movie really captures the sense of how things move in Venice – and capitalizes on it to generate confusion and tension – things floating by your periphery and they’re gone…on the water, passing by in alleys…you turn around and it’s just gone. Blinks, moments. Which is funny in a place that’s essentially not changed in 500 years.
Being in Venice on Christmas Eve, I had to attend Midnight Mass in the Basilica di San Marco. I was attending not as an active parishioner, but out of a deep sense of curiosity: how would one of the largest and most famous cathedrals in the world “do” Midnight Mass? (Catholic roots run deep!)
For those who don’t know: Midnight Mass happens just once a year, on Christmas Eve. It’s a very special occasion to usher in Christmas. Most churches, even the smallest ones, work to heighten that experience by bringing out extra candles, decorating with evergreen, maintaining a beautiful crèche (the tableau of the babe in the manger) and so forth.
We waited for some time in a line that stretched three-quarters of the way through the Piazza di San Marco, but were able to get fairly good seats inside. San Marco is dazzling, known for gold mosaics rather than frescoes like some Italian churches, because the humidity near the water wouldn’t be as kind to fresco.
The mass was delivered in Italian, German, English, and French, each taking a turn while winding through various readings and gospels. While I was listening, I was mostly looking around me at the various artworks commissioned by the Catholic Church: enormous pillars of marble, golden chandeliers encrusted with red jewels, the large baby Jesus resting on poinsettias at the altar (even from this distance, clearly the largest and most beautiful statue of this kind I’d ever seen), the various statues, the pattern in the marble floor…
But the mosaics. Oh, the mosaics. They cover the ceiling as well as the walls, showcasing important figures and moments in the church, glinting down at us in all their beautiful longevity.
I found myself considering, not for the first time, their purpose…the basic idea is this: until just 50 years ago, the Mass was said in Latin, which no one but the most highly educated people, the priests and monks, would understand. No regular churchgoer would be able to follow along; this was as true in the 1960s as it was during the Renaissance. Therefore, the Church has always used visuals to communicate. Picture yourself in 1084, when the Basilica was consecrated in its more-or-less present iteration (although it was a private chapel for Venice’s leader, the Doge, and not for the public at that time). You can’t understand what’s being said, but there is an enormous, glittering Jesus covering the entire ceiling above the altar, reaching out toward you with one hand. You can look around and identify stories from saints’ lives, and you know who is who because of their symbols (San Marco, for example, is often symbolized or accompanied by a lion).
I remember being in Monreale in Palermo, visually devouring their mosaics, the first time I realized that the Church would have had me hook, line, and sinker if I were alive back then. You had me at hello.
Even as a child, I was always looking around the various churches I attended: the niches holding statues; the bas-reliefs on the walls, called stations of the cross, that told the story of Jesus’ crucifixion; the actual crucifix – huge – that hung behind the altar, and each individual church’s emphasized a different aspect of that death (some stoic, some peaceful, some downright gory); and of course, the stained glass windows.
On the few childhood occasions when I attended a Protestant church with another family, I was immediately struck with boredom by their simplicity of decoration. Sure, the kids got to come up and actually gather on the altar (forbidden to Catholics, but sort of cool) but it did not compensate for their plain white walls.
To this day, I wonder if I’d be an artist if I hadn’t grown up Catholic, wanting to fill white walls!
So this is all going through my head during Midnight Mass, in between staring up at the ceiling and walls and following along in Italian and English. A gospel according to John is being read, which equates God with life and light:
Light that shines in the dark: light that darkness could not overcome. A man came, sent by God; his name was John. He came to bear witness, as a witness to introduce the Light so that all might believe through him. He was not the Light but a witness to introduce the Light. For the Light was coming into the world, the true Light that enlightens everyone.
Somewhere in here, someone threw a switch that turned on the interior lights in the Basilica, so that we simultaneously heard the dramatic thump of many banks of lights being awakened, and saw the entire Basilica come to golden life before our eyes. We hadn’t even realized we were in the dark until the lights came on. *Now* we were looking at mosaics! *Now* we were clear-eyed, not peering into dark corners. Everything is illuminated. Everything is full of light.
That was Midnight Mass in the Basilica di San Marco, and that is vintage Catholic Church. Welcome to the greatest performance art ever staged.