Friday, April 9, 2010

A House to Die For

The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” ~ Oscar Wilde

Growing up in the 1970's feels as if my generation was the last one to have a truly nostalgic sense of time and place. The innocence of the 1950's may have been lost. The changing times of the 1960's had passed. An era of 'new and improved' was upon us. It was a generation that fell in love with Hostess Fruit Pies, Pet Rocks, Big Wheels and waking up on Saturday mornings to watch "Super friends' in the Hall of Justice on color TV. Our mothers wore long, wildly printed Maxi-dresses with platform heels. Our fathers eschewed ties and wore open neck shirts. Evil Knievel attempted to jump to Snake River Canyon. Nadia Comaneci was cheered on for Olympic Gold in gymnastics. But, most of all, I remember an enormous treat that happened every weekend: the NBC Friday Night Mystery. It was a huge thrill to stay up way past my bedtime and get to watch MacCloud, MacMillian & Wife and the other thriller series that would take turns airing each weekend. These one hour programs would always reveal an underlying plot, solved bravely by our heroes, who were really just 'regular folks' trying to do the right thing. TV shows today don't have the same innocent, but multi-layered, approach to mystery. We are now told, in graphic detail, by forensic specialists, what happened. The only question remaining today is: "What techniques will they use in the lab?".

In the great spirit of well told stories, underlying character traits, hidden agendas and the need to dig for clues on a personal level, comes "A House to Die For" by Vicki Doudera. Doudera has authored several excellent non-fiction books, worked as a freelance magazine writer, has owned and run a successful Inn, and has worked in selling luxury real estate. Her varied life experience has brought a wonderful amount of charm, perspective, humor and knowledge to her first mystery novel. In many ways, Doudera's book, "A House to Die For", reminds me of those Friday Night mysteries that I grew up watching...or even a Nancy Drew for grown ups. This book is deeply compelling, sensual, entertaining and amusing. But, its style hearkens back to a time that didn't overwhelm the reader (or viewer) with horrific 'too much information' about the wounds on the victims. The protagonist, Darby Farr, solves the mysteries the old fashioned way: good old sleuthing. She asks questions, she digs deeper into all possibilities and rather than relying on crime scene lab, she goes to people's homes and asks questions. Is she a criminologist, working for a secret government agency? Nope. Darby Farr is a realtor...and just like Nancy Drew, just can't help but solve the mystery of the deadly, historic Victorian house on the point.

Comparisons to Nancy Drew aside, "A House to Die For" is *not* a children's book. It's a well written, imaginative grown up novel. However, the style and prose reminded me so strongly of the mysteries I grew up loving, I couldn't help but make the connection. It's a read for a rainy day, with a cup of tea, and a roaring fire. It's a novel to immerse yourself in, on a beach on vacation. It's a step back, nostalgically, because it's not an onslaught to the senses. It manages to be thrilling, and takes unexpected twists along the way. But, "A House to Die For" is not brutal in the way that a Lee Child or Robert Crais novel might be.

Mysteries are compelling for most of us. We all love unsolved puzzles and we admire the intelligent truth seekers who can ferret out the truth. Above all, we love being privy to the process surrounding the "whodonit". Since very few people will actually pursue investigation as a career, it's spectacularly entertaining to tag along, on a literature journey, with a character who does uncover dastardly plots. In the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, Darby Farr is mystery solver for the 'rest of us'...for those who have a nostalgic spirit and love a well told pot boiler...without the graphic violence that besieges far too much in modern novels and movies. We can safely try to solve the crime, along with Darby. In doing so, we can imagine ourselves to be 8 years old again...curled up on the floor, watching television on the 1975 RCA with built in cabinet that had the remote control that actually was "a clicker".

Just make sure to make some Jiffy Pop for a snack while you will want it!

Monday, April 5, 2010

La vie en rose...

“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.” -- Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

From the very first moment I stepped into Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, when I was 8 years old, I was mesmerized by the stained glass windows. Despite having lived walking distance from St. Patrick's, in New York City, I had never fully appreciated or understood the complexity that creates the magical lighting in stained and leaded glass until my first trip to Europe. The diffusion of light, the brilliance of the shine and, the magical glow created by the varying colors, captivated my childlike imagination. I would have been content to sit at the base of each one, allowing the crowds to push past me, as I felt illuminated, warmed and blessed. There was something utterly captivating about my first experience in reveling in the colorful, lustrous streams. It's a feeling that has never left me, and has led me to seek out stained and leaded glass in the many places we've been fortunate enough to visit. While deeply moving, nothing has quite captured the overwhelming delight I felt during my first foray to Notre Dame.

Of all the stained glass seen in churches and cathedrals, none has the symbolism that the Rose Window does. The Rose windows, seen in many churches today, are the large, circular openings that will often have the most ornate 'wheel like' design. The mythology surrounding these windows is as varied as the windows themselves. In the book, "The Da Vinci Code", the rose window idea was said to represent the Virgin Mary, who is a very popular theme in the windows themselves. However, ocular windows are seen in both Jewish synagogues and Muslim mosques, as well. They have been linked to ancient Celtic culture in the form of the endless knot to internal illumination. A Buddhist mandala also bears a remarkable resemblance to the most ardent of Christian rose windows. Their patterns are exceptional and intricate and the effect they have upon the viewer can be profoundly moving.

Because of my enjoyment of stained glass, I've tried to learn more about the process, the creation, the inception and the installation. I have been exceptionally fortunate to know a wonderful artist named Diana Blay. Originally from England, but now living in Maine, Diana, with her late husband, Quentin, helped to create some of the most exceptional glass windows on both sides of the Atlantic. Their company most notably worked in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. To my untrained and untutored eye, the stained glass itself has always looked divinely placed and as if it's always been any sanctuary I've seen it. From Diana, I've learned the sheer magnitude of work that goes into created even one small window. Beginning with an artist's sketch, called a "cartoon", the multi-step process is long and arduous. Each phase brings another layer to the individual pieces and to the overall theme of the final design. The transportation, installation and final touches are what take indistinct pieces of colored glass into a synergy of radiance. Now in her 80's, Diana has become a dear friend to me, and I enjoy every moment I'm able to spend with well as learning about her work.

The most remarkable aspect to stained glass, in light of the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross quote above, is how much they have the ability to reflect our inner nature. During times of frustration, grief and sorrow, it's very difficult to allow our inner glow to shine. When we are filled with hope and joy, every part of our being glimmers radiantly, as if we ourselves reflect through a rose window. The trick, I believe, is to begin with the artist's sketch of ourselves as we would like to a blueprint and plan. How do we want to appear to the outside world? What colors of the rainbow do we wish to reflect? What stories do we want our lives to tell? How can we create, tiny piece by tiny piece, a remarkable, gleaming stained glass window with our lives? What do we need to do in order for our inner light to shine at all times?

By setting our intention as to what we desire for the "pictures" we want our lives to create, we can outline the path we need to take to achieve them. In doing so, we will find obstacles, glass that break metaphorically and other road blocks. We will need to redraw our plans many times, adjusting our 'cartoon' to fit the next step. And yet, when we are done, we will have created something more magnificent than even the Rose Window at Notre Dame.