Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Tale of Two Grottoes: The Pilgrimage to Lourdes

The Grotto at Lourdes

The Grotto at the University of Notre Dame

For nine years, way back in my past, I served as Rector at Breen-Phillips Hall on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.  The Rector lives in community with undergraduates, and is afforded the unique and often wonderful opportunity to be witness to very special moments of growth in their lives.  One of the things I learned almost immediately upon beginning my tenure there, was that a place called "The Grotto" played a very significant role in their spiritual formation.  I cannot accurately count the number of times students yelling to each other down the hallway: “I’m going to say a prayer at the grotto” or “Let’s go to the dining hall early so we can swing by the grotto first and light a candle.”  Late night grotto visits during exams, or during times of crisis in the lives of our students are customary and habitual.  It would be unthinkable for an alumnus to visit campus without paying a visit to the grotto to light a candle, or to offer a prayer.  Visitors to the grotto on a football weekend would be hard pressed to find an unlit candle to offer up for a victory.  During senior week, the grotto teems with graduates-to-be during the now iconic "Last Visit to the Grotto" service.  The grotto has also seen its share of marriage proposals during the final weeks of term. I have been asked, on numerous occasions, to light a candle for a friend or family member at the grotto.  It is, without question, the most sacred place on Notre Dame’s campus.

Yet, Notre Dame's grotto is actually a replica of another, located in Lourdes, in the south of France at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains.  At this location, in 1858, Our Lady made numerous appearances to a 14 year old girl by the name of Bernadette Soubirous.  During one appearance, when Bernadette asked the lady to name herself, she revealed that she was the Immaculate Conception.  The Lady also told her that a chapel should be built on the spot and a procession formed.  When the Church determined that these visions were authentic appearances of our Blessed Mother, Lourdes did indeed become a major pilgrimage site, and is so to this very day.

Fr. Sorin, our founder, along with Fr. Moreau, visited Lourdes on numerous occasions, and vowed to build the replica grotto on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. The ND grotto, while closely resembling the one at Lourdes, is actually about 1/7th the size, and contains within it an actual stone from the original.  The official name of the Notre Dame site is The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. In an article written by then Fr. and now Bishop Dan Jenky, one reads that the very first pilgrimage to Lourdes from outside of France was by Holy Cross Priests from the University of Notre Dame.  I've posted a photo below of the oldest know photograph of the Notre Dame Grotto, from 1896.

It only makes sense then, that we, as part of the Notre Dame family, associated with the University dedicated to our Blessed Mother, feel a strong connection to Our Lady of Lourdes.  I know I have been drawn to Lourdes ever since my first visit to the Notre Dame Grotto on campus in 1986--so much so that I have now just completed my second pilgrimage to that holy site.  Despite the fact that this experience takes an immense toll on body and soul, I plan to go back next year, and as often as God and my pocketbook will allow it.

As the Director of Student Affairs here at the Notre Dame Global Gateway in London, I had often considered making the trip to Lourdes, since travelling to France is much more accessible and affordable from Britain than from the US.  Prior to my first trip, I spoke with several colleagues who visited previously.  They stated that it was crowded, touristy, and full of shops selling cheap religious items, and therefore, they were unimpressed.  However, I then had a conversation with a colleague who visits annually as a volunteer, and has done so for years. Like many of us, this person is a bit weary when speaking of the day to day routines of work and life in general, yet, when relating his experiences in Lourdes, he seems a different person, speaking with an earnest intensity and conveying a clear sense of purpose, passion and devotion.  I was convinced that if I were to visit, it would have to be on a working pilgrimage in aid of the sick, and not as a tourist.

Newman House Group at St. Savin, Lourdes 2017
Many dioceses here in Great Britain journey to Lourdes in the summer on such working pilgrimages.  Our own diocese of Westminster, which is the seat of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, holds a massive pilgrimage each July.  Those who are sick or disabled are welcome to go for the week.  The diocese is then totally dependent upon volunteers who are willing to spend their own money and time that week caring for these pilgrims so that they can do something they could not possibly do on their own.  Additionally, because this event is so very important to the faithful of the diocese, the Cardinal, Bishops and many of the clergy come along as well, in order to pray with and assist all participants during their week in Lourdes.

Walking down the steep hill after Mass at the Cathedral in the Trees
Lourdes 2017
Last year, on my first pilgrimage, I joined up with the Newman House students and traveled with them to Lourdes as part of the Westminster Pilgrimage.  Newman House is the chaplaincy for Universities located in the Diocese.  They traditionally work with a lot of other carers in the Accueil Marie Sainte Frai.  Accueil means “Place of Welcome”, and the building is structured a bit like a hospital in order to accommodate those who suffer from illnesses and disabilities.  Some of the Westminster carers meet with the sick here in London, help load them onto the plane, accompany them to Lourdes, and to the St. Frai where they are housed in a ward-like setting.  Carers are then assigned to an Assisted Pilgrim for the week.  The Assisted Pilgrims suffer from a range of maladies, but have one thing in common:  they are really not able to move about independently and therefore require assistance during their week-long stay.  The carers’ responsibilities include arriving at the St. Frai around 6:00am, waking their assisted pilgrim and helping them to bathe, toilet and dress for breakfast and be ready in time to depart for a scheduled event.  The responsibilities in the evening are similar, staying with them until they go to bed. During the daytime, we accompany them to whatever events they wish to attend. 

Cardinal Nichols anoints
Cardinal Cormack Murphy O'Connor
at the Anointing of the Sick Service in 2016
The diocesan pilgrimage events each day include services such as Anointing of the Sick, Masses at Bernadette’s Parish Church, or at the underground Basilica or the Cathedral of the Trees, a Torchlight Procession, a trip to the baths to bathe in the holy water of the Grotto, an outing to the beautiful village of St. Savin in the Pyrenees for a picnic and Mass, a Reconciliation service, an evening talent show at the end of the week and the closing Mass at the Grotto, where the large candle for the diocese is blessed, then taken across the River Gav to be lit.  It is also possible that the person for whom one is caring might want to go out for a coffee (there is an amazing Italian cafĂ© right by the St. Frai, serving the best coffee I’ve ever had), or a drink or some ice-cream.  Or perhaps they want to shop for gifts.  They may want to visit the Grotto, and get some holy water to take home.  It is the duty of the carers to accompany the person so that he or she can be as independent as possible.

Drinking the best coffee ever with
Newman House Students
at the Italian Cafe
Lourdes 2017
I returned after my first year serving as a carer at the St. Frai both physically and emotionally drained to such an extent that it took me a long time to recover.   The days in Lourdes begin very early and end extremely late. The physical labor was intensive beyond measure.  Some mornings, I was unable to stand up straight when getting out of bed, because my back was such a mess. The emotional toll was even more extreme, and I often found myself in tears during that week following my return from the Grotto.  It is difficult to detail what such an experience requires from one personally, as the carer is constantly confronted with individuals struggling with illnesses and disabilities, and is intimately involved with some who are obviously in the final stages of their earthly journey, and trying to come to grips with this reality.  At times, just being present in the ward was so overwhelming that I wanted to run and hide somewhere, and not have to confront what was clearly a fear of my own mortality.

I was fortunate that the person assigned to me on my first journey to Lourdes was a former Headmistress of a primary school.  After trying, somewhat clumsily and therefore, unsuccessfully, to help on that initial morning, I finally said to her: “I think you’ll have to tell what to do and how it needs to be done.”  That was the key—and she fell right into Headmistress role.  Of course, there were times when I was not able to assist by myself.  Unfortunately, I injured my back years ago, and this makes me practically useless when trying to do any sort of lifting, or pushing a wheelchair. However, the ward is run by amazing and competent doctors and nurses from Westminster who also volunteer their vacation time to help the pilgrims of the St. Frai.  They do the serious medical stuff, and when there were things that I was unable to do, they were right there to do it, or to teach me how.

At St. Savin with my friend Ann.
Lourdes 2016
Mid-week, the person for whom I was caring was feeling very tired, and opted not to go to an evening pilgrimage event.  I made us both a cup of tea, brought in some chocolate biscuits and sat in the ward chatting with her.  It was there I learned about her very interesting life, and told her a bit about mine.  Then we had an exchange that has stuck with me ever since—and also helped me through my second pilgrimage, which I just concluded.  I told her that night that I was touched by her reaction to me that first morning.  When I came into that ward at 6:15am on Monday, a total stranger to her, she trusted me to help her toilet, bathe and dress.  These are things that would normally cause embarrassment, or even humiliation, but her attitude was so straightforward that it allowed me to get on with the work without feeling hesitant or unduly uncomfortable.  She then told me that when she realized she was going to need help for the rest of her life, she knew that she could either opt to be cantankerous and ill-tempered, thereby making everyone around her miserable, and making it difficult for them to assist her, or, she could accept her situation, and, by the way she interacted with people, make it easier for them to lend her the care she needed. It was really quite obvious and simple, yet a huge lesson for me.  I only hope I can replicate this attitude when the time comes that I find myself needing that sort of charity.   She is straight forward and matter-of-fact about her illness and the effects of it on her body.  If she had been embarrassed, angry or sullen whenever she needed help, it would have made it nearly impossible for me, and I might have packed it up and gone home.  She accepted the cards that have been dealt to her with a certain sense of grace.  Not an easy thing to do.  This was part of my deep learning experience at Lourdes.  It is so important to dampen one’s pride, and in so doing, graciously accept help.  I have concluded that “swallowing one’s pride” is probably the most difficult thing to do when one reaches a stage in life where he or she is disabled or ill--at least I know it will be that way for me.  I suspect it is all too easy to resent needing someone's assistance to do everyday and ordinary things.  None of us wants to think about a time when we are not independent.  Now middle-aged, I am beginning to think about those things a lot, and it is so much more real to me then it was when I was in my 20's.  

Our gal Sasha with Cardinal Nichols and
my co-carer Alejandra at the St. Frai.  Lourdes 2017
Upon returning home from my first pilgrimage last year, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my week there and thinking of the many reasons that people make the sojourn to Lourdes.  Folks from every nation and corner of the world go to the Grotto, with a variety of different motives. One morning, I was filling my water bottle with the holy water from the spring and there was a woman next to me who offered to let me use her tap, as mine wasn’t really working.  I turned to look at her, and she had a wagon, with huge containers, most already full of the holy water.  She was suffering a horrible skin condition over her entire body.  I surmised from our exchange that she was bathing in the waters, and praying for a cure to her condition.  I expect some do come hoping for that miraculous cure, and, in fact, the Lourdes Medical Bureau is currently investigating such a case to see if it can be verified by the Church.  Some of the pilgrims who we cared for last year have since passed away, and perhaps they came to Lourdes to pray for acceptance and peace as they approach the end of their earthly journey.  Others come for the community and the prayer, and to see old friends from past pilgrimages.  I was astounded to meet people who have been coming religiously for many years.  I also met pilgrims who venture to Lourdes merely because they are unable to travel on their own, and this gives them an opportunity to have a bit of a vacation and some fun, instead of being house-bound.

Those who volunteer as carers also have a multitude of reasons for participating.  Again, I was surprised to meet people who have been assisting for years.  What commitment! They use precious vacation time to do it, and, despite being volunteers, the trip is quite costly.  The prodigious dedication of this group of carers is amazing.

A selfie of  some of my 
favorite St. Frai Volunteers,
Lourdes 2017
I struggle to explain why it is important for me to participate in this experience.  I confess that I don't come back on some sort of "high", or experience any feelings of euphoria, as we used to at the end of a religious retreat.  Nor do I have the inclination to pat myself on the back for doing something good.  Admittedly, there are some obvious great things that have come from my two trips to Lourdes:  I have met a group of fantastic people that I didn't know before, and to be honest, we have a tremendous amount of fun--socializing and having a laugh. Late night drinks with comrades at the Roi Albert are a highlight at the end of a long shift. Additionally, Lourdes and the surrounding area are beautiful, and I love the trip to the stunningly gorgeous St. Savin. But there's something much more profound going on with the pilgrimage. I am driven to participate because it presents a rare opportunity to be selfless, as I think we are all called to be.  As a single person, I am really only responsible to and for myself, and am always in danger of tending towards self-immersion.  I note that I am sometimes dangerously stingy with my time, energies and talents. I do not question that we are put here on this earth to serve God and each other, but I have to admit that I don’t always feel like doing that.  Once you arrive at the St. Frai, however, you are not given a choice, and you have to jump in with both feet.  There is simply no time to think about yourself when you are on shift. I even leave my mobile phone behind at the desk when working on the ward--and I don't even miss it.  More significantly, I discovered during both pilgrimages, that I was forced to confront my own faith, and closely examine what I really believe.  It was as if someone (or Someone) was asking me to put my money where my mouth is.  Articulating beliefs and expounding about how one should live one's life are simple and straightforward tasks--and I can quote Catholic Social Tradition with the best of them.  The Pharisees were also expert when it came to instructing others how they should live.  In Lourdes, as a carers at the St. Frai, I think we are truly living out the mandates of the Gospel, even if only for a brief week. What many volunteers will take away after a week in Lourdes is something so deep, and so profound, that it is difficult to coherently and accurately convey (as evidenced here in this somewhat rambling blog). We spend six days working intensely with others and I believe it gives us a deep insight into how we are to be the people God created us to be.  So, yes, it is profound--but the realization is also frightening in the extreme.  I have just written paragraphs about how difficult this experience is, at least for me, while simultaneously admitting that we are called to be this way at all times, and not just for one week of the year in the south of France.  Lourdes affords us an insight into who we are meant to be at our very core, and brings us to the stark realization that it will not and cannot be a simple or painless journey. Selflessness can be onerous and burdensome, and does not often come naturally.  I try to use my own Lourdes experiences to frame my life, and sometimes when I find myself tending a bit towards my own self-centered needs, my time at the Grotto helps me to re-focus. Unfortunately, I'm not always successful. Fortunately, there's the Sacrament of Reconciliation--but we'll save that for another blog.
Selfie with carer and famous Actor
Alex Macqueen, who said I could
use his photo to recruit ND students
to come on pilgrimage.  He volunteers at the St. Frai too.

Lourdes, Students and Notre Dame

Newman House folks dining at
our Hotel Metropole.
 Lourdes 2017
It occurred to me after my first pilgrimage that this is an experience that should be made easily available to Notre Dame students, given our intimate and obvious connection to the Grotto.  I am aware of many student pilgrimages from Notre Dame to various sites around the world, but I have not come across any to Lourdes.  As someone who works directly with students as an employee of Notre Dame International, I saw an obvious opportunity to present this experience to our cohort of study abroad students.  There are some logistical problems in that one needs at least a week to work on an actual pilgrimage, and I didn’t see our London study abroad students being able to give that sort of time during their academic term. Additionally, there aren’t pilgrimages during the winter months because, I suspect, Lourdes is underneath quite a bit of snow at that time.  Therefore, when I went back to campus on a work trip last spring, I invited pre-med students who will be studying abroad at our London Global Gateway this fall, to consider going on pilgrimage with us in July, prior to their semester of study.  I thought it would be a great opportunity for them to travel from London to Lourdes with the other university students from Newman House, giving them a week in a ward, meeting and working with pilgrims who are suffering from a variety of physical illnesses and disabilities.  They would also have the opportunity to pray at the original Grotto, attend the pilgrimage services, and even bathe in the baths if they wished.  The bonus is that when they return to study in the autumn, they would have already met and gotten to know a lot of other local university students.  Getting our Notre Dame students outside of the rather insular nature of our London program is difficult, and this seemed a great way to give someone a head start.  It also probably goes without saying that a pilgrimage to Lourdes helping the infirmed and disabled is something that hits at the very heart of our mission.

Notre Dame Student Lexi and
London based student Ollie on
our way to Lourdes via train, 2017.
This type of trip is a very big commitment for any Notre Dame student preparing to study in London for four months. They've already had to purchase a round-trip flight to the UK.  Those who will serve as interns during their study abroad time will have to put out over $500 for a visa in order to work. Also, quite simply, London is one of the most expensive cities in the world, and so most students are trying to save up so that they can have a fantastic immersive experience and not be limited by lack of funds.  I realize that asking them to purchase another round trip ticket for the month before, as well as forking out the £400 pilgrimage fee is asking a lot.  Even so, this year, one student took me up on the offer.  She flew into London and we put her up at Conway Hall, our student resident for a few nights to help her with her jet lag. Then she accompanied about 20 other students from local London Universities and the Newman House staff on the journey to Lourdes.

One of our students took me up on the offer to write a bit about why this pilgrimage experience is so important and meaningful:

I met Ollie last year when I to Lourdes.  Ollie is a local student here in London, studying Theology.  He generously responded to my invitation to speak a bit about Lourdes:

'What can Lourdes mean to a 22-year old Catholic guy? Well, the answer is a lot. This year being my fourth pilgrimage with my university chaplaincy, Lourdes has become a place very close to my heart. Not only is a place situated within the vast beauty of the Pyrenees, it is also a home away from home. Each time I go, I'm always struck at how easy it feels to be welcomed to Lourdes as part of the worldwide Catholic family. You can literally make your way to the Grotto and hear four or five languages pass you by. Lourdes is also a truly numinous place. The peace of God is so abundant in the air, and its status as a place of healing is no joke. It is without question that everybody brings some sort of wound to Lourdes, and goes home in a fundamentally better state. You get to meet Jesus in the sick, the sacraments and the many friends you'll meet on duty or in the bar. If you're feeling inspired by the Holy Spirit to go, do! It'll be the experience of a lifetime.'

I am hoping to get a couple of other written insights from our students, which I will add here in this place.

To conclude, I noted that there is something missing from this detailed account of our pilgrimages to Lourdes with the Diocese of Westminster.  Along with being exhausting, and emotionally draining, it is also an amazingly joyous experience and, quite simply, a tremendous amount of fun.  Both the Assisted Pilgrims and the Carers are amazing people, and it is a privilege to spend an entire week with them. I met more people in Lourdes in the two separate weeks that I visited than I have in the 3.5 years plus that I've lived in London.  And...I did something I almost never do:  took I am with some of the Diocese of Westminster's "finest"...
with Bishop John
Lourdes 2017

With our Scottish pal Fr. Gerard, SJ
Lourdes 2017

With Fr. Stephen, Senior House Chaplain Newman House
Lourdes 2017

Friday, November 11, 2016

A Tribute to Giles Waterfield

I first met Giles in 2001.  Or maybe it was 2002.  It was a long time ago. I was working for 5 weeks as a 'Rector' (live in Residence Director) for the University of Notre Dame Summer Program in London. At that time, the program required that its faculty plan within the course a 5 day travel program, relevant to the subject being taught. Those of us who were "non-academics" were duty-bound to accompany a faculty member on this trip, to "deal" with the undergraduate students, so that the faculty member could concentrate on his or her teaching during the venture.

The first summer I served in this capacity, I went to Paris with the music professors.  I had a wonderful and interesting time, and, except for one or two little hiccups, mostly having to do with a very intoxicated man attempting to pick me up, the trip went off without a hitch.

The following summer, I returned and was told I would be accompanying Professor Giles Waterfield's class on the five day trip to Amsterdam, Haarlem and the Hague, for his art course.  I had never meet Professor Waterfield.  I instantly had visions in my head of American sitcoms featuring the English butler, whose name always seemed to be Giles.  The character was inevitably haughty, condescending towards Americans, and very English.  Needless to say, I was intimidated before I even met Giles Waterfield.  I was not looking forward to this.  I hadn't even considered the major issue with this trip--the fact that certain narcotic substances were all too readily available in Amsterdam and I would be charged with making sure our students were attuned to their academics and "Dutch Art of the 17th Century" and NOT Amsterdam coffee shops.

I remember meeting Giles for the first time, just prior to our trip.  He did seem to me very English, in both speech and mannerisms.  As I listened to him speak to students, I remember feeling slightly queasy.  I had never been to Holland. I knew absolutely nothing about art.   I would be in charge of getting them there on the train (Giles would meet us there), getting their admissions to everything, dealing with accommodation, making sure that they stayed together, and on and on.  I felt totally inadequate.  And terrified of Giles Waterfield.  I knew he was going to be annoyed with me and my performance.

Encumbered by my intimidation of this person and my lack of familiarity with Holland, I proceeded to stumble my way clumsily through the five day trip, making mistake after mistake, all the while having to deal with a major glitch that was not my fault--the means of obtaining funds given me by the university was not working. At one point, I actually had to ask Giles for money.  Giles had no other choice than to conclude that I was an idiot.

However, on the second day of the trip, Giles asked me if I would like to join him and a friend for dinner. My first thought was no, absolutely not.  At this point in the trip, I had probably made about six stupid mistakes and, despite being a graduate of charm school in Grand Rapids in 1980, was feeling the biggest klutz in the world.   But the other option open to me was to find a place to eat by myself and retire early to my room.  One in my position didn't hang with students after hours, and the red light district of Amsterdam wasn't really my scene at the time.  So I agreed. That evening, I had dinner with Giles and his friend from Utrecht, who was working with an organization to recover paintings that had been lost or taken by the Nazis during WWII.  It was a fascinating evening.  After the dinner, when I retired to my hotel room, I wondered why Giles had invited me along.  I had already gotten a sense that Giles was somebody very important in the art world, and I was not.  There was absolutely no reason to include me--he had no obligation whatsoever to make sure that I was taken care of in my free time on this trip, and I must have seemed the most uninteresting person in the world to them. And yet, over the following three days, Giles invited me for a coffee, or a drink, or lunch in our free time.  He expressed a tremendous amount of interest in me and my life, and shared some interesting stories of his own.

At the end of our five day trip to Holland, I had a mad crush on Giles Waterfield.  I can only say that without embarrassment because I'm certain that everyone that knows Giles would, (if he or she were being honest) say the exact same thing.  Still, I continued to be intimidated by him (and told him so) for the next two years. He took great pleasure in that.

On our trips to Holland, I noted that people stopped Giles and spoke to him.  I noted him autographing things.  One morning, walking down a street with him, a gentleman on a bike stopped and greeted Giles.  They hugged, and spoke warmly.  After a few minutes, the man pedaled off, at which point Giles explained that this was his good friend who was Director of the Rijksmuseum.  The Rijksmuseum?  You mean that big-assed place with all of the Rembrandt paintings, at which we spent about five hours of our time the day before?  The Night Watch place???  As he was explaining a painting one afternoon in the Hague, a woman came up to him and said something along the lines of "You're Giles Waterfield."  Indeed he was.  I shook my head.  Giles was secretly famous.  Who knew?  His students know....every semester, about halfway through the term, they would inevitably come up to me, eyes wide as saucers and say "Did you know that Giles has written NOVELS?"

I have so many memories of my times with Giles, but one which rates in the top five things I have ever experienced in my life also happened one summer in Amsterdam.  We had the morning free, and were not due to meet the students until early afternoon.  This was the summer of THE exhibit at the Van Gogh Museum:  the Caravaggio-Rembrandt exhibit.  It was not on our itinerary, as apparently it must not have been relevant to the material of Giles' course.  But he said to me the day before, in his lovely voice:  "Judy, would you like to go and see this exhibit with me?"  As clueless about art as I was, I was not from another planet.  I knew this was an amazing exhibit, and had seen the people queued up for 1/2 mile to get in.  I also knew it was sold out.  So I eagerly nodded.  He told me to meet him there the next day at EIGHT O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING.  What?  OK.  I did.  The lines were already down the street.  Giles took me in a side door, whereupon he informed me that the curator of this exhibit was a great friend of his. Of course he was. What else is new?  I was able to see this exhibit, side by side with this most astonishing man, listening to his commentary (and being followed about by a very nervous security guard, who, I could tell, was annoying Giles to no end--and that amused me to no end).  We were at the last picture when the exhibit opened, at which point I had a true appreciation for the fact that the Dutch are amongst Europe's tallest people, and was grateful to have been able to see these paintings unobstructed.  I walked out of the Van Gogh museum as if I was in a dream world.  To this day, I point to it as one of the highlights of my life.  It was a turning point for me--and the beginning of an admittedly very basic appreciation of art.

I had the good fortune of being able to do 4 or 5 of those summer program trips with Giles and his class.  Those who know Giles do not really need to read any further to understand why I was so taken with him, because they know about his character, his charm, his unique and generous soul.  Those who never had the fortune to meet or know Giles--well, it's better that you do not know what you missed.  The experience of Giles cannot be recaptured or recreated because I don't think we shall ever see his like again.

I was unable to return to the summer program in 2007, but actually was able to return to Notre Dame London in a full-time capacity in 2014.  One of the reasons I was thrilled to come back was to be able to once again be colleagues with Giles, who was still teaching at our institution, and I was not disappointed.  I absolutely loved seeing Giles weekly, and engaging in conversation with him.  Just last month, I was able to accompany him and his class to the Frieze Art Fair at Regent's Park.  It was a joy to see him with his students, who were clearly excited to be there.  Giles sent them off on their assignments and walked around the fair with me.  They came back and practically grabbed his hand, wanting to drag him off to show him their discoveries.  I think this is what I loved most about Giles--his relationship to his students.  Here is a man who had no need to teach.  His students at Notre Dame were not art students.  They were business students, science and engineering students, and the occasional Arts and  Letters student--most of whom were taking the course because it fulfilled the Notre Dame Fine Arts requirement.  But in Giles' classes a passion was awakened in many of them.  Because he exhibited an interest in his students, they naturally wanted to respond to his teaching.  I can't recount how many times I heard students say that Giles was their favorite professor.  I can think of at least two who changed their course of study after being in Giles' class.

To this day, I don't really understand why Giles went out of his way to spend time with me and be my friend.  Admittedly, he would chide me about my self-image, and this last statement is exactly the sort of thing that would annoy him.  In truth, I acknowledge my own value as one of God's creation, yet I never figured out what I added to Giles' world. He was amazing.  He was internationally renowned. He was an author, a prize-winning novelist.  He was the Director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery for years.  He curated amazing exhibits world-wide.  He was famous and knew famous people.  I was none of those things.  I knew little about any of the things that made up Giles' world.  That he took me under his wing and actually went out of his way to spend time with me--and share part of his life with me speaks volumes about the man, about his humility, and about his attitude and outlook upon people and upon this world he inhabited for way too short a time.

Everything I know about art, I owe to Giles.  BG (Before Giles), I detested the thought of entering a museum.  It was an alien world and I felt as if I didn't belong.  I found museums to be an exercise in fatigue, and, on the rare occasions that I found myself in an art museum, would stand in front of the largest painting, and look at it, pretending as if I was analyzing it, and acting as if I actually had a clue.  I once emailed Giles after a particularly humiliating experience in my hometown.  I had gone to the GRAM (Grand Rapids Art Museum).  There was an exhibit there of James Tissot drawings of London.  Newly initiated into art by GW, I thought this would be interesting.  I paid my money and looked around, but was unable to find the exhibit.  I asked a man, who was clearly a volunteer, because he was wearing "the jacket", for directions to the Tissot exhibit (pronouncing it "Tiss-oh"). The oh so pretentious volunteer said loudly "WHO?"  I repeated the name, and he said, even more loudly "WHO?? Oh, you mean Tiss-otte--he screamed in the most condescending voice he could conjure! I was humiliated.  I felt my face flushing and I felt like a common pleb. I wanted to run out of there at light speed.  I explained to Giles in an email that THIS is why people like me avoided art museums.  I never felt as if I belonged, or had enough knowledge or culture to set foot in such places.  Giles' response was, first of all, that I had pronounced the name correctly and secondly that the volunteer was an absolute ass.  He then said that he would be using my story to illustrate something or other in something he was writing for somebody.  Whatever.  The point is that I felt redeemed.  I wish Giles had been with me that day...that would have been so cool, because he would have taken that guy down, and run over him like a lawnmower.

Knowing Giles for 15 years or so has changed my life.  Whenever I was to visit a city for the first time, I would contact Giles.  Judy:  Giles--I'm going to a conference in LA.  I have 1/2 day free.  Which museum would you recommend. --Judy Giles:  Judy--1/2 day is too short to go through the Getty.  I think it would overwhelm you.  Go to the Norton Simons Museum in Pasadena.  You'll enjoy it.  They also have a lovely courtyard and cafe where you can enjoy a nice cake and a cup of tea or a drink. --Giles.  I went to the Norton Simons Museum in Pasadena.  It was amazing. I had the best day.  And the same when I went to Kansas City, and Rome, and Florence, etc. etc.  I actually felt privileged when Giles was off to his trip to Egypt, and asked ME where I thought he should go...

At this point in my life, and thanks to Giles, I can spot a Rembrandt across the room.  I notice the large brushstrokes in the paintings of Frans Hals.  I know that Cuyp is not the Dutch word for cow, but rather the name of Dutch artist (who apparently likes to paint cows).  I can identify a Ruisdael landscape.  When I see weird trees I know it's a Hobbema.  More interestingly, I look at space.  It never occurred to me to think about the museum itself.  Giles seemed to be the world's leading expert in the the history of museums.  I remember when he told me that, the first summer I met him.  I looked at him as if he was nuts.  I had no idea there was such a thing as an expert in the History of Museums.  I know it now.  And it makes total sense.

Over the years, Giles would say on occasion:  Judy, I must have you over to my house for dinner.  My response was:  Giles, when the English say that, what they really mean is "I will never invite you to my house, but I'm being polite by saying this."  But he actually did invite me, along with some great friends of ours.  We had a blast.  And he invited me again, along with the students in his class.  And again. with a group we were taking to the cricket match at the Oval around the corner.  He was generous, he was kind, and he was hilarious.  I had so much fun with Giles.

This week, after learning about Giles' death, I've been walking around in a fog.  Like everyone else who knew him, I cannot quite accept that I will never see him again.  I am not yet able to grasp that he will not come in on Tuesday at about 9:17 (two minutes late for his class), make a slightly sardonic and yet affectionate comment to Nick and me as we're chatting in the office, and then go into his classroom.  It has been many years since I have shed this many tears, and because of it, I find I have a constant headache that will not subside.  I haven't really slept since hearing this awful news.  A light has been extinguished in the month of November--the month that we traditionally remember the dead.  I find the grief sometimes too much to deal with, and that alone surprises me.  I loved Giles.  And yet, he was not my closest friend, and I certainly was not his.  But as I think about it, reflecting upon why I am so deeply affected by his passing, it comes down to the fact that, in knowing him, my life was changed.  I gained a new interest...a new appreciation for art.  I came to understand how it is transcendent, and how it allows us to transcend--important for someone like me who was once a theologian.  I have gained another passion, and all because Giles Waterfield, a man who already had an incredibly full life, thought enough of me to embrace me and include me into his circle of friends.  I am a better person for having known him...Giles made me feel important and significant.  No--that's not right--Giles helped me to see the truth that I am important and significant.

I have a lot of photos of Giles, but I'm posting some of my favorites.  The first is one of our best trips to Amsterdam.  We had a blast.  The other three pics are from March of 2015.  I ran into Giles one day at our centre and told him I was off to my first trip to Florence the following weekend.  He exclaimed that he, too, was going to be in Florence and suggested we meet up.  Naturally, I was ecstatic.  We met on the Oltrano side of the Ponte Santa Trinita.  From there we went off to lunch, and then to look at the apartment where he was staying.  I told him I was off then to visit the Basilica di Santa Croce and he thought he'd like to come along.  It was there that I took these photos, and I remember thinking that I have never laughed so hard. Giles wanted to pose, and look "studious and serious" but I kept laughing, and this made him laugh.  Therefore, he thought the pictures would not be satisfactory, so he kept ordering me not to make him smile, and I kept snapping away.  I ended up with three pictures that look fantastic, but still, when I look at them, I cannot help but smile and think about what an amazing day I had in Firenze, with the inimitable, unique and amazing Giles Waterfield.

Dutch Art of the 17th c. Class in Amsterdam


I'm not really reading this book
Stop making me laugh, this is serious

I don't know really how to end this blog  post.  It was written out of grief, as I have spent the week not wanting to accept what I know is true--that Giles is gone.  And yet he is here, in my many memories.  He will be present every time I step foot into the National Gallery, or pass by a museum, or see the large brush strokes of a Frans Hals painting.  I will remember him when I look at the ceramic Irish cow he gave me (whom I named Cuyp).  Tonight, these thoughts do not give me consolation, but I know that time is the healer of all wounds.  But as I write, I am compelled to acknowledge that, along with near inconsolable grief, I have been granted an incredible privilege, for I am counted among those who had the opportunity to know this amazing man, to learn from him and to be a recipient of his kindness, counsel, wisdom and friendship, not to mention his sardonic and dry wit.  I will never stop missing him, the sparkle in his eyes, and the adorable half smile.  I will never forget him, for he has changed my life for the good.   Requiescat in pacem, lovely Giles.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Goodnight Sweet Zip

I haven't blogged for a long time.  I always meant to get back to it, but knew, in my heart of hearts that it would take a big event to get me back to writing.  Sadly, that big event occurred today:  I had to say good-bye to my best little pal Zip, the Jack Russell Terrier extraordinaire.  My heart is broken.  I'm not quite sure what to do with myself now that he's gone.

It was about 13 1/2 years ago that I went with my friend Johnny to look at a 6 month old dog that some folks were wanting to sell.  The people "said" they were allergic to him and needed to get rid of him.  The minute I met "Milo" I knew the truth, and was pretty certain allergies had nothing to do with it. He was a handful.  He  never stopped racing around the room the whole time we were there--running, jumping, barking, bouncing off the walls.  I had never witnessed such energy before.  At the time, we thought it was adorable.  We took him home.  I should have known, when they let him go for $50, and when the pup got a cursory "bye" from the owners, with no sense of sadness or sorrow, that we were in for an adventure.

To us, the dog was NOT a "Milo".  We decided to let him name himself.  It didn't take long.  The first day we had him, John's sister and brother-in-law came to visit.  Bill sat on the sofa. The dog saw Bill, hit the floor running, and, with one gigantic leap, landed atop of Bill's head.  Bill was not amused.  I thought it was hysterical.  ZIPPY! We learned immediately that this racing, running and jumping that we thought was so adorable never, EVER stopped.  It sort of ceased being cute by day two and became a bit of an issue.  The dog simply never tired.    And, when he was bored (which was always) he became destructive.  He ate the carpet.  We thought it was safe to barricade him in the kitchen when we left because it was all tile and, as far as we could see, there was nothing he could damage.  He ate the backs of the wicker chairs.  I mistakenly shut my bedroom door one morning, locking him OUT of HIS bedroom.  That made him mad.  He ate something else--I forget what.

Also,his previous owners told us he was potty trained.  He was, sort of.  When he needed to go out, he would come and look at you, and then go to the back door to go outside.  However, if you happened to be fast asleep when he looked at you, he went to the back door and promptly "went" on the "inside" part of the door.  Too bad for you. You should have been paying attention.

It was time for doggie training.  I enrolled him in school at PetsMart.  It was a disaster.  Other dogs seemed to learn relatively quickly.  Zip chased them around and barked at them.  He didn't understand why they were all sitting and staying.  It was an alien concept to him.

At the end of the course, the teacher, (a Jack Russell owner), graduated Zip.  That earned a lot of laughter.  Then she gave us the "most improved student" award, earning more laughter.  I didn't think it was funny.  My dog was brilliant.  He was just....undisciplined.  The teacher understood and encouraged me to "stick with it."

We figured if we could find a way to expend all of that energy somehow, Zip would be less of a terror in the house and more of a terrier.  However, living in Arizona, laden with heat, gravel yards, and dangerous, roaming coyotes, there was no good way to let him run--and, having been no great success in doggie training, the word "come" was akin to "blah, blah, blah" as far as Zipster was concerned.  We just couldn't let him run around loose outside.  He would take off, chasing rabbits, and we'd be lucky to find him again.  Finally, Johnny rigged up a deal where we could let him run on the sidewalk while we drove along in the golf cart.  It was a winner.  The dog literally went NUTS when we got ready to take him for a run.  It was the saving grace to our relationship with Zipster.  Every night, we hooked him up and took him for a run.  Being a true athlete, we eventually got him up to running several miles.  It was impossible to slow him down.   He absolutely loved it, and, glory be, it tired him out.

I also started running him in agility training.  That was fun, but he was a disaster.  He was lightening fast, but he decided that he loved running through tunnels and hated doing weave poles, so, instead of following the course and my directions, he just ran around like a crazy lunatic, looking for all the tunnels and running through them.  He had a blast.  The problem; however, is that the instructors at the agility training were exceedingly militant.  Agility wasn't supposed to be fun!  When Zip lost control (which he did each and every night), they got angry--blaming, of course, the owner.  As if I had any command authority over my dog.  They just didn't understand the Jack Russell mentality.  One night, they got so mad when he took off running and chasing all the other dogs, that they yelled and me and made me cry.  Losers.  No worries--we discovered there was a such a thing as "Jack Russell Day"--an actual event where hundreds of screaming, barking, crazy Jack Russells came together for racing, tunneling and, his favorite:  lure coursing.  This is where I finally realized I wasn't a bad owner.  I saw hundreds and hundreds of dogs, all acting exactly like my own--with owners unable to control them.  I felt vindicated.  We quit agility and hung out with the Jack Russell owners.

By the time Zip was seven or eight years old, I decided to keep him.  We had succeeded in learning what we needed to do in order to keep him from destroying the house.  He had an incredibly independent and interesting personality.  He wasn't needy.  He wasn't a "cuddler".  You might think he was--but you would be wrong.  He slept next to me in the bed and on the sofa because he decided that if the floor was not good enough for humans, it was no good for him either.  Everywhere I sat, he would sit--EXCEPT the table.  Somehow, he realized that taking a place at the dining room table was off limits.  I initially decided that he would NOT sleep on my bed.  He had other ideas.  He came up immediately.  I pushed him off.  He jumped back up.  I firmly set him on the floor.  He jumped up again.  I put him on the floor.  He lay on the floor, waiting, until I fell asleep and stealthily crawled up onto the bed.  It woke me up.  I put him back on the floor.  The next morning, he was next to me, in bed, under the covers, head on the pillow.  This battle went on for three weeks--with him in bed beside me every morning.  I was losing sleep.  And, I was losing the battle.  Finally, I gave up and, when I went to bed, threw the covers back so he could get under them.  Somehow, I doubt I'll be able to sleep tonight, without the Zipster by my side.  I came to like having him there, even if he was a bed hog.  Amazing how such a little dog can take up the entire bed.

The truth about Zip is that I fell in love with him.  I took him absolutely everywhere with me that I could.  I planned vacations and trips that would allow him to come along.  Last Christmas, I opted to drive from Indiana to Phoenix for Christmas, so that I could bring him with me.  He traveled across the US three times with me.  I brought him to Mackinac Island twice.   My weekends, and evenings after work, especially in the summer, revolved around which park, beach or trails we would be exploring.  I loved Zip--but what I loved most was watching how very excited he got to go for a walk, a car ride or a ride on the boat.  I had to spell the words "g-o", "P-e-t-S-m-a-r-t", "w-a-l-k", "t-r-e-a-t" and about 500 other words.  I convinced my friends that Zip's vocabulary was well over 500 words--and I wasn't lying.  Did I say he was brilliant?

I have spent more time with Zip than with any one person.  And it leaves me wondering what I will do when I wake up tomorrow on Saturday (better known as "Zippy's Day"), and he won't be there, bugging me, pushing me to take him somewhere.  I really miss him and letting him go today was one of the hardest things I've ever endured.  But the poor guy was very sick and he wasn't going to get better.  There is no redemption in animal suffering.  They are incapable of understanding why they feel so badly and why they can't do the things they loved to do and were created to do.  I knew I would not let Zip suffer, despite how much I wanted to keep him near me.  So the vet was good enough to come to the house and help Zip go to sleep.

I can't describe how blessed I was to have had this little pup in my life for so long.  He brought out the best in me.  He helped me to realize and try to overcome (or at least downplay) my biggest shortcomings--my inherent selfishness, my temper and my impatience.  He was pure joy.  I couldn't help but feel good when I was with him.

I've received a lot of nice messages today regarding Zip.  I hope my friends are right.  I hope there is a doggie heaven or a rainbow bridge and that, one day, my pup will bound towards me and leap up on my head.  I know I'll be thrilled to see him again. Until then, sleep well little pal.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Random Musings on Thanksgiving

Black Friday.  As one who has never participated in this event, I can only imagine what it's like:  snarls of traffic, people fighting for parking spaces, lines outside of Kohl's, Best Buy and Old Navy and other stores that open up at 3:00am  Many of my friends participate in this event, but I just cannot bring myself to do it.  Like anyone else, I love a good sale.  However, I prize my sleep a bit more.  And here in Indiana, we have the added benefit of sub-freezing temperatures.  It's much warmer under the blankets.

So Thanksgiving has come and gone.  They say that it is the busiest travel day of the year ("they" were my mother's dear friends.  I never met them, but she always talked about "them", and whatever "they" said was of paramount importance.  "They" are the experts and so we must listen to them). Thanksgiving is a holiday uniquely American, and one that seems to take paramount importance in our lives.  Everyone wants to get home, wherever that may be, for this great day.  Most of us do not let the day pass without massive preparations, ending in a huge feast together with our loved ones.

It is the one holiday of the big three that does not celebrate a holy event in Christianity.  We trace the initial Thanksgiving back to the pilgrims in the 17th century, who celebrated their first successful harvest and invited some of their Native American allies to a meal; however, it was more than likely not referred to by them as "Thanksgiving".  George Washington, John Adams and James Madison all designated official days of thanks during their terms. But the day was not officially recognized as a national holiday until the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, who, in the midst of the Civil War, issued a proclamation that this be an official day to pray for the healing of the wounds of our nation.

Americans love this day, and as I reflect on why, I am filled with a sense of hope for our nation and our people even in these seemingly dark and dismal days.  True, Thanksgiving can lend itself to gluttony and to endless hours of football.  I confess that I look forward to watching the Lions, despite their abysmal Thanksgiving Day record in the past decade, and yesterday was no exception.  But most would accept that there is something more to this day than massive amounts of food and drink, and going comatose in front of the TV.

Christmas has become so commercialized that I actually dread it.  And we have made almost a joke about Easter, inserting, of all things, a bunny and eggs into the celebration of this holy day (I cannot fathom how the feast of the resurrection of Christ came to be associated with an eerily large rabbit who hops around delivering colored eggs, but that's for another post I think). I would posit that Thanksgiving has remained intact.  It is, quite simply, a day to stop and give thanks and it seems that most people still acknowledge that.There are no arguments or complaints by the ACLU or those who are, during the Christmas season, offended by the appearance of  the creche on the town square.  And yet, the day is, at its heart, a deeply religious holiday. The mere name of the holiday tells us what we are about on this day--giving thanks.  But thanks to whom and for what?  To our employers for a paycheck?  To the school board for days off?  To Meijer's for the big turkey? Clearly, those of us who are employed are thankful for our jobs in this time of large scale unemployment throughout the nation.  And which of us does not appreciate a few days off from work or school?  And who doesn't love a big feast with family and friends?  I am appreciative of my employers for the paycheck, but it would be ludicrous to think that they were the object of a national holiday.  No, in the end, our thanks is and must be directed at the One who made our lives possible, and that One is God.

I find it unusual then, that those without any faith or belief celebrate this day. If, indeed, the day is all about giving thanks, to whom are they directing their attitude of gratefulness?  My hope is that there exists, in all of us, an inherent need to assume an posture of thanksgiving towards our Creator, whether we recognize it as such or not.  And in stopping to give thanks on this special day, perhaps it is a small chip in the armor of those who refuse to accept the benevolence of God on every other day.

It is simply impossible not to accept the religious nature of this day.  As a Catholic, I attend Mass on Thanksgiving.  While it is not what we term a "holy day of obligation"--a day that we are, as faithful Catholics, required to acknowledge by our attendance at Mass, many people still fill the churches because, in so doing, they are expressing their thanks to God, and admitting that all they have and are is a GIFT.  Catholics tend to be "by the book" when it comes to attending Mass.  Usually, if it's not an obligatory holy day or Sunday, attendance is sparse. However, this is not true of Thanksgiving Day.  I have lived in many places and am always heartened to see the church very full on this day.  When I lived in London, the Cathedral offered a special Mass for Americans on Thanksgiving, and large numbers of us attended, acknowledging the need to come together and express thanks on this day--a day not officially recognized in England as any sort of holiday.   The word "Eucharist" comes from the Greek and means, quite simply, "giving thanks."  Among other things, this is what we do when we come together to pray in the Mass.  Therefore, it is a natural act for us to attend Mass on Thanksgiving Day.

I sincerely hope that Thanksgiving does not go the way of Christmas or Easter.  There clearly is an attempt to commercialize it, as we are pushed to dash to the grocery stores, and, it seems, that the turkey wearing the pilgrim hat and belt buckle has become the symbol of the day.  Many of us probably spend gross amounts of money on food for the all-important feast.  And yet, the meal is an important and significant part of our celebration.  Ingrained in Christians is the idea that we celebrate our thanksgiving with a meal, as did Christ at the Last Supper.  And so we do spend money and have more food on the tables than those present can possibly ingest.  But it is also a time of charity amongst us.  In giving thanks, it is difficult to do so without being cognizant of those who suffer and live in dire poverty.  Statistics seem to show that Americans are more charitable during this time than any other both with donations of money and with their time.  Being thankful goes hand in hand with recognizing that there still exists suffering amongst our brothers and sisters.  Hopefully then, this day pushes us to not only remember them, but to actively participate in alleviating their suffering in whatever way is possible for us--even if it is simply in prayer.

So, our thankfulness, or, at least mine, is directed towards God.  And while it is often far easier to dwell on that which is wrong, and pine for that which we don't have, I am grateful that there is a day...a national day that causes us to recall and be thankful for all that we have been given and offered, including our lives and our salvation.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Get off the Expressway

In 1956, after much lobbying by the automobile industry, the Interstate Highway System was authorized under Dwight D. Eisenhower.  We can thank the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 then for our expansive and intricate web of expressways that wend throughout our country, allowing us to reach our destinations much more expeditiously and, because of that, less expensively.

I am not opposed to the system we have in place, and, at times, I find myself frustrated that there aren't more such expressways.  The drive from South Bend to Indianapolis is nearly intolerable with two lane highways and seemingly endless stoplights and snarled traffic as one traverses through larger towns such as Kokomo.  However, there are times when the pleasure of the trip comes from the drive itself, and, in getting off of the expressway and onto the lesser traveled roads and two lane highways, one can catch a glimpse of Americana and of a culture that seems to be from time gone by. However, small town life seems alive and well.  It's just that we don't actually see it when we're zipping by on the beltway at 70 miles per hour.

This past weekend, I opted to "get off the highway."   A month or so ago, after a trip to Hagar Township, MI to walk my dog on the one remaining beach that allowed dogs (and now, the township has opted to disallow dogs, causing a big ruckus amongst the people, but more on that in another blog post), I discovered a place called Bob's Barn.  Bob's Barn is one of hundreds of "farmer's markets" that you will come across if you bother to get off the expressway while driving through Michigan.  I stopped because I saw the enticing sign offering "pumpkin rolls."  This writer has never, ever bypassed any establishment that offers pumpkin anything, and so I pulled into Bob's, my mouth watering.  Alas, when I walked into the market and inquired about the pumpkin rolls, Bob's wife told me that they were all out. She actually makes them herself, along with pies, pastries and muffins of every sort.  Bob's sells their own produce, grown on the farm behind the market.  There are various and sundry other offerings, such as jams and jellies, pickled produce, honey, soaps and a variety of other products, not all hand grown or hand made by the couple, but most of which come from local growers and manufacturers.  They explained to me that the market used to belong to her parents, and at that time it was just a roadside stand.  They inherited it years back--(they've been married for fifty years now!) and so they have run the market for a good long time.  Six years ago, they experimented and actually erected a building because, they said, "people preferred not to shop in the rain." and told me that, after a slow first year, it took off.  I was indescribably sad about not getting a pumpkin roll, but encouraged as they handed me their card and told me next time to "call ahead" and they would have some waiting for me.  In the meantime, I took a good look around the market.  A couple was sitting at one of two little tables, having a coffee and some ice cream.  I got the impression that they were "townies" and that Bob's was a gathering spot for some of the locals.  Bob (or at least I assume that he's Bob), gave me a tour of the place.  It seemed as if this is what life must have been like for many, many more people before the advent of the superstores and one stop shopping.  I left with a bottle of honey from Benton Harbor and a home made muffin, promising that I would soon return for the pumpkin roll.

So, this past weekend, I planned to travel up to Holland for a family reunion. Making good on my promise, I called Bob's before leaving, and they assured me that they would have pumpkin rolls waiting for me.  I couldn't have been more excited! When I arrived, I learned that they also make "lemon rolls" as well, but was told they had to be pre-ordered.  No worries there.  I purchased two pumpkin rolls, and told them I would stop on my return home on Sunday. They asked if it could be after 1:00pm, as that's when they return from Sunday church services.  It was refreshing to hear folks talk about attending church services without a flutter of embarrassment.  That's the way it should be.  I purchased a home-made pistachio muffin for the road, which Bob happily offered to warm up for me, and I went on my way.  By the way, it was the best pistachio muffin I have ever had!

On Sunday, heading south out of Holland, I decided, instead of hopping onto the 196 expressway, that I would instead take the old Blue Star Highway down through Harbor Country.  This portion of US 31 is most probably the route taken in days of old when folks wanted to travel down to Chicago.  It parallels, for a good part, the shores of Lake Michigan, and goes through Saugatuck, Douglas, Glenn, South Haven, Covert and into Hagar Township.  After my short visit to Bob's Barn the day before, I was curious to see what life was like off of the expressway. I was not disappointed.  First of all, there is minimal traffic.  I was not hurried from behind.  It was a gorgeous day, and there was still a spot of color on the trees bordering the winding highway.  Driving along, I noted the many shops and markets where people grow their own food.  There are countless quaint antique stores along the way with their wares stocked up outside in the fronts of their shops.  There are small, beach front motels that really are called "The Shangri-lah" and "Breezy Acres" and the "Lakeshore Motel".  And, as I expected, there are countless farmer's markets, both small, such as Bob's, and larger ones, like Earl's, pictured above. Many are closed for the season such as Earl's, because we had our first snows on Friday, and so the berry season is long over.  I imagine, also, that many small businesses rely on the throngs of summer tourists who flock to the shore, for much of their trade. The markets still open are offering apples and apple products from their orchards.  I picked up a big jug of apple cider and a couple of apples from Dee's, and had a nice chat with the owners.  I was telling them that I much preferred fresh produce from the source and, obviously, the home-made apple cider, which is always so much tastier than what you pick up in the supermarket.  The ladies responded that it was gratifying, but affirmed the obvious--self sustaining businesses are very hard work.  I can't even imagine...


I drove slowly through the neighborhoods around  Saugatuck, where homes are not cookie cutter carbon copies of one another.  There are, sadly in my opinion, too many new developments going up around the lake shore area; consisting of very expensive homes in gated communities.  However, expensive they may be, there is in them, no charm or originality.  These older homes actually have front porches!  I wonder, do people still sit there in the summer, drinking lemonade, listening to the baseball game, and waving to the neighbors as they stroll by, as we used to do many years ago?  It seems so, in these smaller towns and communities.  These are large, older homes with enormous yards for kids to play in, and huge trees and gravel driveways.  The lawns, while beautiful, are not pristinely and uniformly mowed by a landscaping service that has been hired by some home owner's association.  Fallen leaves lie about on the grass, actually allowing us to realize that it is autumn.  Somehow, I can't imagine a neighbor charging over to complain that there are a few leaves about.

I approached a large curve in the road and was treated to the site of a gas station that did not sprout a Shell, BP or even Marathon sign.  Big Curve gas station looks as if it came out of the 50s or 60s.  Pristine and unique, with sort of an art-deco flair, I could almost envision the attendant coming out in his clean, white overalls, checking my oil and cleaning my windshield.  Alas, it was a self-serve station, but it was refreshing to see an independent proprietor along this route.  Somehow, it seemed to fit in better with the general lifestyle off the expressway.  

Along the drive, there are numerous restaurants and diners.  You will not find McDonald's or TGI Friday's along the Blue Star Highway.  You will find places such as The Blue Moon Bar and Grill, the Blue Star Grill,  and, my personal favorite, the What Not Inn.     

Another type of business very prevalent in this area are the antique or gift shops.  Many seem to be run out of the owners' actual homes.  They are quaint and inviting, and it is difficult to drive on by.  I would suspect that business slows quite a bit when the snows fall.  Despite Michigan being a winter sports paradise, I would guess that more people roam about Harbor Country in the summer and autumn than in the winter, and it makes me wonder how these folks get by during the long frigid months from December to April.

Of course, not all of the businesses are small.  You'll come across the large flea markets, held inside the big red barns.  These are conglomerations of small business owners, who bring there wares to a central place, offering "one stop shopping" to the consumers.  Still, by shopping at these places, you're supporting the small business owners in the area.  This one below even has a theater attached.

As I wended my way farther south, I realized that I was going to arrive at Bob's for the long awaited lemon roll well before 1:00pm.  I came across a beautiful conservatory.  There wasn't a single car in the little gravel parking lot.  I pulled in, and I and my sidekick Zip took a stroll through a beautiful, pristine, wooded area.  It was an unbelievably gorgeous, if not chilly, day, and I think that both of us enjoyed wandering along the paths.  At one point, I realized that I had not been keeping track of our directions.  There were many paths, going off in all different directions.  Fortunately, we were able to find our way, eventually, back to the little lot.  It had been a magnificent day, but I was thinking about the lemon roll awaiting me at Bob's.

I wound up back at Bob's Barn about 12:45 and they were already open.  Bob was still wearing his suit from church. His wife produced the promised lemon roll, and then helpfully added that she had made another if I was interested.  I thought long and hard, but opted instead for one lemon roll and a home-made pineapple upside-down pie.  I picked up a few honey crisp apples, and said my goodbyes with the promise of returning soon.  

Bob's Barn
I would imagine that the advent of the mega-stores and supermarkets have made life more difficult for folks who have small businesses such as the ones along the Blue Star Highway.  I am not against those stores.  Meijer's one stop idea was probably a godsend for people such as my mother, who was trying to shop for a family of seven.  Being able to pick up everything in one place definitely was a time-saver for busy parents, and, admittedly, the food tends to be less expensive as well.  But I can tell you that I never had a lemon or pumpkin roll from Meijer's that tasted as good as the ones from Bob's Barn.  And I have never, ever seen a pistachio muffin for sale at Meijer's either.  Even more importantly, I think, is the conversation.  In just two trips to Bob's Barn, I learned quite a bit not only about the proprietors, but also about the Township and the area.  When you go into a Meijer's or a Lowe's or a Walmart, you don't often meet people and have a chat with them.  You don't find out where the food or produce comes from, and you certainly don't meet the folks who made the items you're purchasing. With the dissolution of these small businesses, came the dissolution of the notion of the neighborhood.  Somehow, sacrificing that for convenience's sake doesn't seem to be a fair trade.

As I walked out of Bob's with my bag in hand, I looked down and noted that she had placed my purchases in a plastic bag from Meijer's!  Well, what goes around, comes around!  I had a little chuckle at that.

We always seem to be in a hurry, but, every once in awhile, I would urge you to slow down, and get off the expressway.  You might be really surprised and pleased at what you find beyond the beltway.