The quiet rebellion of women who take pictures anyway
When you visit the island of Torcello in the Venetian lagoon, you observe a sign inside the basilica that forbids photography. Ugh, you think. But it’s so beautiful. Inside, the apse—a half-dome of sorts—is encrusted in gold mosaic. The Virgin Mary resides in its center, alone, regal, royal. It’s graphically arresting and elegant in its simplicity; it contrasts with the opposite wall, a riot of colors, shapes, lines… Biblical scenes of the Last Judgment.
The cathedral is exquisite. One simply must have pictures to remember. So you plan to purchase them in the form of postcards from the adjacent gift shop when you leave. Problem solved.
Why then, the click? Why then is that woman over there snapping away? Lost in thought, she roams the chapel, gazing at the art, studying the expressive scenes, recording her visit on her sleek 35mm Canon.
Your immediate thought: she must have special permission. She must be a researcher working on a project. You explain as much to your husband. No, he says, she’s just ignoring the sign. His nonchalance startles you. As if this is just what people do, and in this case, a woman.
Oh, you reply, secretly envying this woman’s quiet rebellion that allows her a certain freedom that you will never claim. Disobey a sign that clearly states no photos? You shake your head. It’s right there in 96-point Times New Roman even. You roll your eyes at her audacity. This disregard for convention and rules astounds you.
You wonder how much inevitable damage each click does to the Byzantine masterpieces. Over the decades, who knows? She could be causing irreparable harm, you think. This should go down on her permanent record, wherever those are.
You ask your husband about the inevitable damage. Probably doesn’t hurt the art at all, he explains, adding something he read reported most cameras have filters that limit or remove UV waves. Doesn’t damage a thing, he says.
Here I’ve been, you think, following all the rules all this time.
You continue to stare at this renegade designing her destiny, staking her claim with a few flashes that you still cannot bear to sneak on your measly iPhone. It’s true, you think, this woman has shown you to be the fool that you are.
She clicks another shot and checks the tiny screen. It must have been good, you think.
Her crimes finally and fully committed, the woman strides purposefully across the nave, stuffing her camera into a turquoise canvas tote bag. On the side of the bag is a design: two kitschy, feathery angel wings protruding from behind a shield. The design is cliché and you abhor that about things.
Thanks for reading! This is another story generated by a week-long trip to Italy I took in 2017. There are more stories on the way. Feel free to leave a comment and click follow for more.
When the security employee at the gate asked me to step aside, I remembered. My pocket knife. Oh no, my pocket knife, I thought, realizing I had left it earlier in the little cosmetic bag inside my purse. I had forgotten to check it with my luggage and now I was at the gate and my knife was going away.
The uniformed employee explained in her thick Venetian accent, “We must take this from you. If it’s you really need, you go downstairs, fill out the form, and it be sent to you.”
Standing there, I knew we wouldn’t have time to make those arrangements. And besides, it wasn’t a valuable possession. But then again, it was.
For twenty-five years, I had carried that pocket knife.
Back in 1990, I had chosen it from a mound of identical ones heaped in a small cardboard box next to a cash register in the sporting goods department at a Kmart in Topeka, Kansas. It had cost my boyfriend (now my husband) an entire dollar. It featured a steel blade, a wooden casing, and bronze hardware that over the years, had polished to a golden shine from being nestled in my purse for so long.
Similar to how candy bars are placed at checkout stands to captivate small children, that box of $1 knives held equal allure for the fishermen and hunters who visited that department. Not that I was one of them. We had gone to the store to use the restrooms tucked away behind the restaurant at the back of the store. As he waited on me, he spotted the knives and bought one for me.
“Keep it in your purse. It’ll come in handy,” he told me. He was right.
That little knife had been many places… all over Missouri and Kansas, Nashville, Asheville, several cities in Maine and Vermont, Columbus, Atlanta, Sarasota, Highland Park, Phoenix and other Arizona locals, multiple sights in the Los Angeles area, Oregon and Washington State, Cape Town and other South African cities, DC, New York City, Taos, Breckenridge, Crested Butte, Dallas, New Orleans. Over the years, we had journeyed across the country to attend annual family reunions, exhibit my husband’s ceramic art at festivals, and accompany him as he served artist residencies.
And now, its final destination would be Venice, Italy, where it would be left behind, a hindrance to a quick departure, discarded inside a gray plastic tub under the counter.
I regret leaving that silly little knife because it wasn’t just a pocket knife. It was a symbol of family life and motherhood and had been more often used for non-cutting tasks. That knife spread peanut butter on sandwiches many more times that it ever cut into a fish or snipped a cord on a tent or tarp. It was this mother’s indispensable tool. As such, it was always easy to locate.
My son and daughter both knew I carried a pocket knife and I passed it back to them at least once or twice on every road trip we took over the years. Need to break open a family-sized plastic bag of M&Ms? Get Mom’s knife. Opening a DVD? Get Mom’s knife. Got a stray thread hanging from your hem? Ask Mom to hand back her pocket knife.
Just prior to leaving Venice, as I buckled up inside the plane, regretting my decision to leave my knife, I recalled how six years earlier, I had flown from Johannesburg to Atlanta with a knife my son had purchased as a souvenir. Despite its massive four-inch blade, he had somehow forgotten to pack it in a checked bag. I offered to stow it inside my purse, warning him it would likely be confiscated at our first departure.
Nope. X-rays and inspections by hand never discovered it. Of course, that would happen to a brand new knife without any peanut butter experience. And of course, that knife has since been long forgotten, I might add.
As for my knife, I have since replaced it, but the blade on my new one is narrower and not quite as functional as the one left in Venice. I mean, you can spread peanut butter on a slice of bread if you really want to, but it’s the not the same as my Kmart special.
I’m one of those people who feels sorry for the last Christmas tree on the lot. So it’s no surprise that I’m still feeling nostalgic for my lost pocket knife… a year and a half later.
Somewhere in Italy, it’s languishing in a gray bin of confiscated sharp objects. Maybe it’s been recycled by now. Maybe it’s been donated to a charity. Hopefully, it’s performing some mother’s mundane tasks, making her life a little easier, and definitely more memorable.
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Those spires. Those ledges. Those bluffs. Behemoths of weight and mass, rising from the high desert floor with quiet heft and bulk.
The space between them is as much a part of the experience as the monuments themselves. My perspective disintegrates. My awe overwhelms. There is no way to determine: how far is that from me? How much expanse between those mittens?
The valley appears surreal, other-worldly. The interior of a cave where the sky forms the walls.
I hear the purr of a single car traveling the dusty road, a red thread snaking in the distance. Other than that, nothing. Even the breeze is silent, its sound swallowed in the burnt sienna drapery of rocky canyon gowns.
The valley transforms me and I am small, insignificant, a dot of breath in the stillness.
We travelled to Monument Valley three years ago and I’m still thinking about it.
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How I found connection in the Basilica of San Vitale
Here’s a scenario: Your daughter requests sprinkles on the cupcakes you’re baking for her birthday party. However, pretend the shaker needed to sprinkle on the dotted decorations has not been invented yet, and the only way to get the sprinkles perfectly placed and evenly dispersed on the cupcakes is not by scattering them with your fingers, but by applying them one by one, with tweezers perhaps.
Adding sprinkles to the cupcakes now will take days, weeks or longer. The task will be one of intense devotion and labor, simply because of the time involved and the perseverance needed to complete it.
One by one, each tile is placed into the scene. One by one, each tile forms a bit more of the image. This will take twenty years at least. It’s a painstaking process and creating the picture would be much faster with brushwork, but glass is the medium and a stunning mosaic is the goal.
Each tiny piece of glass—some are half the size of your pinky nail—symbolizes perseverance and an acute attention to detail and artistry, and—by extension—to Christ.
Cupcake sprinkles are the comparison that came to mind when I began to write about the mosaics inside the Basilica of San Vitale. My family visited the basilica in March of 2017, during a much too brief daytrip to Ravenna. The church, whose namesake was a Roman soldier martyred during the Christian persecutions, was begun in 526 and consecrated in 548.
The mosaics of San Vitale are so well-known in art history circles that they have earned the basilica the description, “the most glorious example of Byzantine art in the West,” according to Ravenna: City of Art.
On the morning we visited, the interior of San Vitale was drenched in sunlight that streamed in through the windows of the church.
As I stood in the grandeur of San Vitale, sheer awe at the handiwork overtook me. Sheer wonderment at the dedication and tedium. Sheer astonishment at the skill and collaboration it took to not only conceive the images contained in the murale, but also to source the materials, create the artwork, and execute their application and installation on the high walls of this old, old church.
In the sunlight, the golden tesserae dazzled. These are actually pieces of gold leaf sandwiched between pieces of clear glass. When they were pressed into place by medieval workmen, the gold tiles were angled to best reflect the sunlight, or the glow of a candle or lantern.
As we took our self-tour, I stared up and pondered the mosaics and felt nearer to those laborers and artists who spent many years of their lives creating these mosaics. I marveled at their tenacity to produce these works without power tools and machinery, electricity, plumbing and other conveniences.
Would this sort of devotion be practiced today? I don’t think so, but then maybe it was different for these medieval workers.
Would the tedium of producing these masterpieces have been more endurable for those to whom the time of Christ was only four hundred years earlier? True, four hundred years is a long time, but wouldn’t the time of Christ have been within their mental grasp?
To compare, would I find it easier to devote myself to glorifying the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock? I don’t know of anyone from that era, but I do feel a connection of sorts. I know what their concerns were and what motivated them. I can identify with them to a degree, while I find it nearly impossible to identify with people of Biblical times. Perhaps medieval workers could.
As I continued in my thoughts, my husband and daughter sought the two mosaics-within-the-mosaics below. The mosaics of Byzantine Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora are considered the masterpieces of San Vitale.
The first photo below shows Justinian surrounded by his court, clergy members and soldiers. The emperor holds a bowl that contains bread for the Eucharist. Justinian never visited this basilica, according to Dr. Steven Zucker in this Khan Academy video lesson, but this mosaic was his way of asserting his power and authority from Constantinople, the Byzantine capital.
The figures in both mosaics are highly stylized. Laura Morelli, art historoian and author of The Gondola Maker, explains it this way: “A more eastern aesthetic characterizes the mosaics completed in Ravenna during this early period. Elegant, slender, flattened figures on a shallow spatial plane stare out with huge, staring eyes.” The two famous mosaics clearly reveal this style.
The mosaic of Empress Theodora rests on the opposite side of the apse and mirrors Justinian’s mosaic. In this piece, the empress carries a chalice of wine for the Eucharist. Wearing a finely detailed gown, Empress Theodora is surrounded by her imperial court and attendants. She wears elaborate jewelry, and, like Justinian, is surrounded by a halo.
Ready to finally move my gaze from the brilliance of the gold, I focused on the frescoes that cover the ceiling of San Vitale. They were completed much later—in 1780—byartists from Bologna and Venice. While they are beautiful, they cannot compare, in my opinion, with the luster of the mosaics.
I felt our visit was coming to its end, and I noticed that even the floors of San Vitale were intricately decorated. Miniscule marble tiles did their best to distract me from the golden “eye candy” above. Over the centuries, the floor tiles do show some wear, but are amazingly colorful and durable. The most wear is to the floor surface itself, which, in some places within the basilica, contains depressions from heavy traffic patterns from worshippers and tourists.
The detail in the flooring reinforced my thoughts about the devotion of those early medieval artists; they spared nothing—not even the floor—in their tenacious pursuit to glorify God.
As we exited the basilica, we took photos of its rustic appearance and its unusual structure of two stacked octagons. Its unusual shape does not follow cathedrals designed in the typical shape of the Latin cross, but instead evokes eastern influence from Byzantium. From the outside, one would have no idea of the grandeur within.
Visiting the Basilica of San Vitale was a lesson in humility, reverence, and connection. As I walked across the same floors, gazed up at the same artwork, and whispered in the same hushed tones that countless others whispered down through the ages, I knew that my visit was not about sprinkles on cupcakes.
It wasn’t even about the magnificent golden mosaic masterpieces. It was instead about connecting, in one sense, to historical Christianity, and in a broader sense, to humanity.
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Sometimes my students become really angry. I can relate.
Teaching middle school is a tough gig. Kids in grades sixth through eighth grade can be loud, impulsive, and frenetic. It’s enough on some days to make me consider finding another vocation. So at the end of a long day when I’m telling myself that there is no way I’m teaching middle schoolers another year, it helps to recall that I, too, can be loud, impulsive, and frenetic.
In fact, I once was so loud, impulsive, and frenetic that someone should have reported me. Someone probably would today. What makes my story even worse is that my meltdown occurred when I was 26, twice the age of my seventh-graders. It’s embarrassing to recall how immature and idiotic I behaved. But, hey, at least I can empathize with my students when they have their own moments of anger.
Here’s my story. It was 1992, around 4:28 on a hot Thursday afternoon a few months after my wedding day the previous April. I was at the social security office located in a Phoenix office building to fill out a form update my social security account to my new last name.
I turned the knob to open the maple hardwood door. It didn’t turn. Didn’t even budge. So I knocked. No reply. I turned the knob again. Yes, it was definitely locked. I heard the shuffling of papers inside the office. The lights were on. There were people still there and they weren’t letting me in.
I reflected on the situation. I had taken off from work early to arrive before the 4:30 closing time. If the taxpayer-supported personnel on the other side of the door didn’t answer, I grumbled, I would have to do this all over again another day.
I was incensed. I felt cheated. I made a scene. I knocked again. I asked, “Can someone let me in?” I knocked again, this time more loudly. I asked, this time a little louder, “Is anyone there? Could you please just take this form?” It was just a silly form. A piddly piece of paper. Someone just needed to take it from my hand, I thought in desperation.
And so I pounded on the door. I couldn’t think. I was out of control and I didn’t care who saw me. I got down on my hands and knees—in my dress and heels—to look under the door. I could see feet moving around inside. There were whispers. It was now 4:31, a measly minute past closing time. No response. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. I would be heard.
I stood back up and continued to pound the door. The adjacent window, conveniently crafted of obscured glass, revealed shapes and shadows within.
“I know you’re in there!” I yelled, continuing to pound. “I can see you moving back and forth! Take this form so I can leave!”
But they didn’t. No one ever answered the door. So I left, angry, red-faced, and embarrassed, knowing with disgust that I would have to return to this hallway within the week.
I came back a few days later well before the closing time and quietly and politely conducted my business. I didn’t even complain about the poor service of a few days earlier, which was probably a mistake in retrospect. Then again, they would have figured out I was the loud, impulsive, and frenetic woman from earlier in the week and might have called security.
Looking back now at my social security office fiasco demonstrates that anger can get the best of us… even those of us who know better than to throw a tantrum at age 26.
My past experience with such intense anger helps me to empathize with my students today.
And honestly, I’ve only witnessed one to two student meltdowns in my classroom during my years of teaching. I can usually ward off an angry episode with a quickly whispered conversation, or, for another example, an invitation to the student to leave the room to get a drink to literally cool off. Tactics such as these help to diminish the anger.
But anger does happen once in a great while and I totally understand where it comes from.
Sometimes students feel powerless. Been there. That’s exactly how I felt that day in that office.
Sometimes students feel they’re at the mercy of someone else’s priorities. Done that. At the social security office, my priority did not align with the office personnel’s at that particular moment.
Sometimes students yell. Check. It’s just a natural reaction when it seems no one is listening to you.
Sometimes they argue. Me, too. We all have ideas we want to communicate.
Yes, I can relate to the frustrations my students feel and how they express those feelings of helplessness and lack of control. In the environment of school–or any other setting where people with different priorities meet up–tensions arise and play themselves out in myriad ways… even so far as taking to the floor in your dress and heels to yell through the crack. Wait—at least my students haven’t tried that yet. Gotta give ’em credit for that.
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A ripple of regret dashes across my mind. The clarity of this moment lays bare the brevity of my life.
Have you ever been listening to a news story on the radio, or read an article online about a solar or lunar event that’s about to be visible in your area? A blood moon. An eclipse of some sort. An unusual proximity of the Earth to Venus, for example.
As you’re listening, the announcer concludes with a date or year when the event will occur next. Sometimes the date is far into the future. 2068. 2090. 2092.
This happens to me every so often. Then I do the mental math and quietly recognize that when that celestial event happens next, I’ll likely be gone. I’ll run more numbers in my head and figure out that my kids will be well past retirement. My grandchildren, which don’t even exist yet, will be nearing it.
When I was twelve, I figured out that I would be 35 at the turn of the millennium. It was exciting then to ponder the passage of time. However, now when I think that far ahead, the certainty of experiencing any milestone is not so assured.
I don’t mean to be depressing. I don’t write this to wallow, but to point out often it’s moments like these that cause me to intensely ruminate on my reality, my life, my time on Earth.
Am I doing what I want to do? Am I doing what I consider important work? Does every day serve a purpose? Even if it’s a small purpose, or even if the work seems of little worth, it should still be significant.
With that understanding, you’d think I would make a point to experience each and every celestial happening that comes my way. You’d think I’d stay up late to seize the moment and see those meteors that will never be this visible or frequent again in my lifetime. You’d think I would wake at 2:30 a.m. to gaze at that moon. But I don’t. Sometimes I do, but usually I don’t.
On those occasions when I don’t venture out, I instead silently acknowledge that this is indeed one moment I will not experience again.
A ripple of regret dashes across my mind. The clarity of this existential moment lays bare the brevity of my life. I suspect that one day I might wish I had made the effort to see the rare events of the night sky.
When that day comes, will I instead be content? Will the purpose and significance of my life, despite those moments when I choose not to observe the heavens, offset my occasional apathy and indecision?
When that time comes, I intend to answer “Yes.”
Thanks for reading this little “slice of life” post. If you found this interesting, click “like” so others may more easily find it. Feel free to leave a comment? Does anyone else skip out on the “last in my lifetime” heavenly events?
It was scary to think how much time and effort this man had put into his actions that night.
Imagine being 22, female, and in Venice, Italy for a three-month internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a small, yet world-renowned modern art museum located on the Grand Canal. At 2 a.m. on the day your father plans to leave after helping you get settled for a week, you notice that the motion sensor outside your door is lighting up frequently. Too frequently, in fact, for this time of night. In addition, some of the lights are brighter than others. That’s odd.
You also hear strange noises outside. You ask your father to check the exterior heating/AC unit that you assume must be malfunctioning. He discovers not a malfunctioning appliance, but a rickety lawn chair that someone has been using to stand on so they can peek inside your apartment.
The peeping tom had made his first appearance earlier that evening, after dark around 7:30. My daughter’s landlord–let’s call her Maria–had come over to help with the t.v. reception and while they were making adjustments, my husband and daughter had both noticed someone outside the apartment loitering in the walkway. They discussed the strange loiterer, but Maria eventually dismissed him, explaining that he was likely just someone from the neighborhood who was curious with the activity in the apartment since it had been vacant for quite some time.
So, in the middle of the night, when my husband ventured outside to check on the furnace and instead found a rickety chair, and a man with frizzy, shoulder-length hair rounding the corner about thirty feet down the corridor, real concern set in. Trying to assess the situation, my husband walked further down the corridor and noticed another lawn chair that had been stepped through around the corner. My husband immediately called Maria, who then immediately called the polizei.
While they waited for Maria and the police to arrive, both my husband and daughter tried to make sense of it all. Upon reflection, they both figured the peeping tom had ruined his first chair while peering in the window, and gone to retrieve another. My daughter also realized that the brighter lights from the motion sensor were more than likely flashes from a camera. Did he deliberately walk back and forth often enough to cause the motion sensor light to camouflage the camera flashes? It was scary to think about how much time and effort this man had put into his actions that night.
Fifteen minutes later, three uniformed police officers were there assessing the situation. Then, unbelievably, the frizzy-haired man sauntered by. Actually, because of the way the walkway turned, there was no way for him to avoid the small gathering without looking suspicious. He tried to play it cool, his camera hanging from his neck.
When my husband recognized the man, he nodded to the police officers who stopped the man and asked what he was doing out so late at night. He replied that he was a photographer taking night shots of the city.
Maria didn’t stand for it. Her Italian temper flared and her arms waved in anger. She accused him of spying and told him to leave the neighborhood and never return. She informed him that a police report was being filed at that moment and if anything happened later, he would be sorry. He was never seen again.
Although this was incredibly scary for me to hear about back in Missouri, it was good to know that, in general, Venice is a quiet municipality known to be “one of Italy’s safest cities.” The full-time resident population in the historic city center has declined dramatically in recent years, and today rests at about 55,000. We had researched the city’s crime statistics before our daughter left on her trip and were reassured. What causes the most trouble for the millions of tourists who visit each year? Pickpockets. What about violent crime? According to Frommers, it’s considered rare.
The next day, my daughter actually considered returning home; maybe this adventure was too much to take on and this incident was a sign that it just wasn’t meant to be. After an anxious day of pondering her options, she decided to stay; however, she did want to find a different apartment.
After attempting and failing to find an alternative rental with the help of my husband (who postponed his return flight for three days), my daughter returned to her original apartment, where Maria assured her she would be safe.
Still, my husband and my daughter took a few precautions. Before leaving, my husband helped her cover the windows with white paper. They figured that if a peeping tom had no view, there would be no temptation. They also made a point to meet the older woman, a Venetian native, living just across the passageway.
Over the next weeks, my daughter got on with her new Italian life. She began working a routine schedule at the museum and truly felt comfortable and at home there. She made many international friends. She became more brave and confident in her new surroundings.
Gradually, her strange experience became a distant memory. Most importantly, she didn’t let the peeping tom’s bad behavior define or detract from one of the most valuable experiences of her life so far. It had been a rough start, but she was determined to thrive.
Thanks for reading! If you found this post interesting, click like so others may more easily find it. Also, feel free to leave a comment on your own strange travel experiences.