Thursday, May 11, 2017

Mont St. Michel

“Somewhere in the center of a huge sky-sea with only a single road leading out is a circular city. A church like a castle rises above the rest and dwarfs all the cars and houses, and something which looks like a stream flows to the right of a yellow-brick wall. This wall surrounds the small city and seems to force it upward, keeping it from sinking into itself like batter in a cake pan. If a person could suddenly transport himself to the winding dirt road ending at the castle it would be a hot day and he would feel very small looking up toward the spires and high walls of the building. He would be kicking dusty pebbles and trying not to get dirt on his socks and shoes. The loose rocks would crunch under his steps and he would be tempted to seek shade but somehow never would, thinking he was almost there. The city would seem large enough if he were there, and not like a small island in the middle of a cloud, not really big enough for anything but a picture on a calendar.”

I was 22 years old when I wrote that. It was 1967 and I had begun my second real job, as a newspaper reporter, after finding that teaching a bunch of hooligans did not agree with me. One day as I sat in our dingy newsroom listening to the clack of the AP wire, I looked up at a wall calendar and saw the image that would tease and fascinate me for the next 50 years. What was it? I could only imagine what went on in such a magical setting.

Mont St. Michel (when in France, “Le Mont” if you don’t want to sound like a tourist) is a tidal island in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy. It was built on a dream. According to legend, St. Michael came to Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, three times in dreams ordering him to build a shrine off the foggy coast of France. That was centuries ago. Now millions of visitors each year cross a causeway at low tide to visit Le Mont, since 1979 a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In April 2017 I was one of those visitors.

At 22 I knew nothing of the archbishop’s story or the shops, cafes, and even two hotels that now line the cobblestone streets within the walls of Le Mont. Today crowds wind upward toward the abbey, whose spire rises toward Heaven topped by a gold-plated statue of St. Michael. A person can walk along the top of the sea wall and look out over the mud flats to the bay—sand, sea, and sky. Sheep graze in a distant pasture. Tides dictate the traffic flow. I crossed the causeway to enter Mont St. Michel on a perfect spring day under a bright blue sky. Was it the most gorgeous place I’d ever seen?

In 2008 a work trip took me to India, where I was fortunate to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra early in the day and watch its marble colors change as morning fog gave way to sunshine. Until I saw Le Mont in person, the Taj Mahal was the most beautiful structure I’d seen. Now I don’t know.

In India I couldn’t bear to leave the Taj Mahal, turning again and again to look before it was out of sight. I took my last photo of Mont St. Michel from our coach after miles of looking back at the coast of Normandy to see it one more time.

Some dreams are so big they seem impossible. Think of the archbishop, who ignored the first two dreams tasking him with building an abbey on a pile of rocks in a tidal basin. The stories say St. Michael finally poked him in the head during the third dream, and that did the trick.

My dream took a while to percolate, too. When I got home from France a few weeks ago, I got out the metal box that held my musings from my year as a reporter, including the piece on Mont St. Michel. It was fun to compare my first impression with reality. 

Those newsroom musings were written on a manual typewriter in spare moments. The newsprint is curled and yellowed, the edges fragile. Why did I save them? Ask any writer.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Fangirl at 71

My granddaughter was here for a visit last week. At 14, Annie is devoted to her favorite teen idols. She spends hours listening to their music, watching YouTube videos, and catching up on concerts and other news. She writes fangirl fiction and posts it on Tumblr under a different name.

During the same week I received a Facebook friend request from the man who had been my favorite teen idol when I was about Annie’s age. He is still famous and still performing. A thousand women respond when he posts.

The friend request looked real. I went to his fan page, a page I was already following, and saw the same profile photo that had been sent to me. Could it be? I knew better, but the past came rushing back to me, sweet and irresistible.

As a girl in West Virginia I rushed home when my teen idol was scheduled to sing on American Bandstand. My heart would race with love and excitement, tempered by a cold fear that I would be interrupted during those precious minutes he was on TV. Please, I prayed: no phone ringing; no Mom coming in from the kitchen; and, most of all, no failure of the picture tube in our black-and-white set. I would pull the vinyl-covered ottoman close to the screen, sit down, and make sure the volume was just right. How I loved that boy’s moves, his hair, his twinkly eyes, his voice, and the way I could hear his smile in the music.

I’ve kept the record albums I bought and memorized. I’ve seen my idol in concert twice. The first time I was a screaming teen-ager thrilled to be present for Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars at the Charleston Civic Center. I was too young to drive, so Dad chauffeured my friend Mary Jo, my little brother, and me to the show. When we sat down, Dad stood out in his gabardine topcoat among the squirming, screaming kids. The second time I saw Bobby Rydell I was a senior citizen, still thrilled and screaming like it was 1959.

I deleted the fake friend request and decided to do what I would do for anyone I thought was hacked. I sent a PM (personal message) from his fan page.

He responded, advising me not to accept: “I do not send requests.” A second message came the next day thanking me for the heads-up.

“Your grandma had a teen-age idol too,” I said to Annie. “I still do, and guess what? He’s writing to me on Facebook!”

“Grandma, that’s really exciting!” You said it, Sister.

He posted a SCAM alert. On the private side, I wished him luck and got a “thumb up” in return. I thought that was it, but we had another couple of exchanges about the fake account.

Was he really writing all these notes? It was fun speculating with Annie about whether the messages were real or had been generated by someone hired for the job of keeping up the star’s social media presence.

I then noticed "he" was one of my 83 personal page followers. What? A follower is someone who chooses to follow another’s public posts. Was it possible? After all, we had corresponded--if all of that was real. I compared photos, and the “follower” looked as real as the “friend” had--but no. It was not possible my teen idol was following my Facebook posts. I decided to write again to let him know the fake account had turned up on my page. I thought that would be the end of it.

“I think it’s over,” I said to Annie. “My messaging romance is over.”

To my surprise, he replied again with a lovely note. I was suspicious, though. How could he take that much time to write to me?

I asked Annie’s dad, “Do you think it’s him?” and showed my son the string of messages. He studied the latest one while Annie and I waited.

Greg said, “I think it’s him.”

I have other idols. I’ve been introduced to a few. Fabulous performers, some are also known to be aloof or demanding. Surely they grow weary of the attention from time to time. One star’s stage makeup failed to cover his five-o’clock shadow before scruffy beards were fashionable. Another performer shook my hand and gave me a photo signed “Love.” Honey, I thought, if you love me, put an expression on your face. When we learn to expect and excuse giant egos in exchange for entertainment, kindness is a surprise.

After his last message, ending with “It is a pleasure,” I found myself love-struck again, the way I’d been at 15. I could think of nothing else. Messaging with my idol had provided more than a memory; I was once again immersed in the experience of fan love. I figured I was on the brink of becoming a pest by then, so I sent a final message and mentally signed off.

My buoyant feeling persisted the next day as I listened to oldies on XM radio while driving to a local mall in the spring sunshine. I was filled with a sense of well-being. I knew exactly what emotions had prompted those love songs.

At age 71 I was floating on a fangirl cloud like the one I remembered—one like Annie’s. It was fun and wonderful. I got a “thumb up” to my last private message, a perfect ending to my week of fan love. And was that really B. R.? I say yes. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

Window Dressing

I recently put up a decorative curtain rod and hung new floor-length floral curtains in my master bath. Putting up rods is stressful. The task brought to mind a few “curtain fights” with significant others over the years. Now that I live alone, I attempt simple household tasks by myself with my limited supply of tools.

Getting those curtains into place was important, as my only line of defense for a few weeks was the translucent blind on the window, hanging slightly crooked from worn-out strings. Every morning during those weeks I took my shower with the lights off; thus, I had to wait until it got light enough outside to see where the soap and shampoo were. I could find everything else.

Every day my process brought to mind a scene from “Seinfeld” in which George Costanza visited his mother in the hospital. As I remember it, she was hungry and asked him to go to the cafeteria and bring her a sandwich, but George stayed put because he was mesmerized by what was happening in the next bed.

“It’s six-thirty. Time for your sponge bath,” the nurse said to her patient, pulling the curtain closed between the beds. George then enjoyed a “cinema in silhouette” as the nurse slowly sponge-bathed the shapely female patient.

I didn’t want to be backlit and displayed like a shadow puppet as I went about my morning routine. A viewing audience outside my house at 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. is unlikely, but people do walk their dogs and get their newspapers. My neighbors and I share sidewalks, and most of my home is on the ground floor.

When I moved into this condo, the previous owner had left mini-blinds on all the windows, so I didn’t put up curtains right away. One day a neighbor told me she could see me in my room at night. She was doing me a great favor, letting me know my mini-blinds with their gaps and bent slats were not affording me complete privacy. Live and learn.

The recent curtain installation went smoothly after I exchanged the first rod I bought. (Note to self: Measure the window before buying the hardware.) I have no power tools, but my hammer and screwdriver did the job. I left the blind in place. The curtains not only added a layer of privacy; they also look pretty. Because they match the ones in my bedroom, they visually define the space as what it is: a master suite.