Union Church of Pocantico Hills, the Chagall and Matisse stained glass windows

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Along with elusive hopes and dreams, I have a few achievable visions. One of these is to view as many of the stained-glass windows created by Marc Chagall as I can. With that goal in mind, my friend Nick and I rode the train from Manhattan to  Westchester County as part of a trip to New York. Our destination was the Union Church in Pocantico Hills, home of nine windows by Chagall and one by Henri Matisse.

We boarded a northbound train at Grand Central Station, leaving behind Manhattan’s grit and dazzle for the tranquility of the Hudson River Valley. About 30 miles north of the Big Apple, we stepped off the train at the Tarrytown station. A taxi ride in a black sedan took us uphill from the Hudson through the winding, tree-lined streets of Pocantico Hills, a small town with some grand parts.

This hamlet in the town of Mount Pleasant is home to the grand Rockefeller estate, Kykuit, (pronounced kie-cut, like die cut) and an unassuming stone church whose building and stained glass windows were originally funded by the Rockefeller family. Inside Union Church, the largest Chagall window graces the back wall, while each side has four Chagall windows that each portrays a scene from the Bible.

The windows are illuminated versions of Chagall paintings. With the help of skilled artisans, he began the windows in the traditional fashion, setting glass pieces in place. He personally achieved the effect of painting by brushing the glass with an acid wash in a process similar to applying color to canvas.

Nick and I spent time with each image, walking between the pews for close encounters. At the front of the church, we faced the Rose Window, an abstract work by Matisse. Some of its shapes in reminded me of green sea creatures. Union Church’s Rev. Pastor Paul Dehoff noted that the windows and the Rockefeller family’s involvement have played an integral role in the continued prosperity of the church. “But, on the other hand, people are people. We have good music, a charming setting, and the windows.

“Windows, even by Matisse and Chagall, do not a church make. They lift us and help us transport us to other beauty.”

I agree there’s much more to a church than stained-glass windows — but art gets me through the door.

One of Chagall’s nine windows at Union Church is titled “The Crucifixion.” He painted Christ’s image in fluid black lines on a cross amid blue glass that shimmers like water.

Hope is the message I draw from the Easter story, Christ’s death on the cross and the resurrection after three days.

Recently I experienced severe muscle spasms that made me curl up in pain. For a while I forgot about everything else, though I held out hope the misery was temporary. I repeated my mantra that “It’s only three days.” Coincidentally — or not — my back pain ended in three calendar days.

Whenever life gets me down, I am reminded of the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection three days later, a limited period of time. Temporary. No matter how deep the pain, physical or emotional — it too, will pass. Easter morning will come.

That day in Pocantico Hills, I took one last look at the light streaming through stained-glass windows. The dancing light and color filled me with a sense that good things will happen. As we walked out of that rare intimate venue for great art treasures, I squeezed Nick’s hand with satisfaction.

Riding the train back to Manhattan, I felt different. I was changed forever by the seeing the Chagall windows at the Union Church.

The Benicia Herald published this essay in 2014.

The Chagall Museum, Nice, France

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Bound for the Chagall Museum on a winter afternoon in the seaside city of Nice, France, I turned my back on the Mediterranean. Walking past the train station, I took the Boulevard de Cimiez to the site dedicated to Chagall’s paintings, prints, and stained glass,

One can easily reach the museum via Bus #15 for a single euro, or by one of Nice’s ubiquitous taxis, but on the day I visited I preferred a light hike in the French Riviera sunshine.

The sleek, gray, box-shaped buildings were midway to the top of the Cimiez Hill. A simple silver sign near the street told me I had reached my destination. I navigated the sidewalk that cut across the lawn. The place seemed oddly quiet for a site dedicated to one of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists. I wondered whether it would be open or closed after. My fears fell away when other visitors stepped out of the museum.

Feelings of relief washed over me. This was the museum visit of my dreams. All the planning and travel time was over. I purchased a ticket for 8.5 euros and followed the clerk’s gesture to the glass doors. I opened my eyes and heart to the experience.

For the briefest moment I paused in the gift shop before moving on to the exhibit area. I rapidly surveyed the array of prints, books, DVDs, cards, bookmarks and other small items designed with Chagall images. Though they were beautiful, the many reproductions had to wait because I was about to enjoy original Chagalls — paintings, glass art, drawings and tapestries.

For me this was a sacred site, a temple of art.

I advanced through two sets of double glass doors to find the actual paintings. After handing slips of paper to the ticket taker, I entered two adjoining oval exhibit spaces and became immersed in Chagall’s deep, radiant colors.

Rich greens, purples, crimson reds, and rays of yellow colored the larger-than-life series based on images from the Old Testament. Titles included “The Creation,” “Abraham and the Three Angels,” “The Sacrifice of Isaac.” Chagall filled the corners with brides, angels and roosters that appeared as if they floated above the scenes. Flights of fancy were never so free.

The palette changed to raspberry, rose and other shades of red in a room that displayed the five paintings in the “Song of Solomon” series, a celebration of romantic love. Chagall’s two great loves were his adored first wife Bella and the second, Valentina, with whom he lived at the end of his life.

The artist unabashedly portrayed love through entwined human forms painted with broad, sweeping strokes. The audacity of the colors and energy astonished this writer.

Chagall’s work has touched my soul for decades. I saw his paintings for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The childlike simplicity, the bright color, and whimsy drew me into his world.

I traversed a long hallway adorned with other paintings; I peered into the semi-darkened auditorium. Floor-to-ceiling blue-stained glass windows made me gasp. The stained glass windows on the opposite side of the auditorium were similar to their sisters at the Chicago Art Institute and other sites with Chagall window installations.

As if on cue, a jazz pianist on stage played a few bold notes on the grand piano. A jazz ensemble rehearsed for an evening performance. That concert and others serve as a living fulfillment Chagall’s vision that his museum would bring together music and painting. I watched the play of light shining through glass before returning for one more stroll through the display of canvasses. Chagall’s art is a gift. So playful. Such happiness! Love of life saturates his art.

On leaving the Chagall Museum, I faced the dazzling sunshine of the Cote d’Azur, and followed my wandering spirit downhill to the sea.

Chez Palmyre, a bistro in Nice, France

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FOR A LONG TIME, I CONSIDERED A TRIP to the south of France an impossible dream. Even though it ranked at the top of my bucket list of places to see before I die, I doubted that I could afford on my modest budget what seemed like an such an extravagance.

A spiritual counselor heard about my dream and challenged me with the question, “What are you willing to give up?” So, after a period of belt-tightening and saying no to small luxuries, I made the trip.

I took advantage of lower airfares and room rates in the off-season, and weathered the January cold in a comfortably warm woollen coat. I flew from San Francisco to the Mediterranean port city of Nice. My hotel room facing the turquoise sea cost a fraction what it would in summer. I traveled around the city and the surrounding region on city and regional buses; the spectacular ride along the winding coast from Nice to Menton cost a single euro, while the fare for the bus ride to see the Matisse Chapel in Venice was a mere four euros.

One evening in Nice, after days of dining on fresh fruit and artisan cheeses purchased at markets and shops through the city, I embarked on a quest to have a traditional French dining experience. The bistro of my dreams had to be situated off the main square away from the masses, preferably along one of the narrow passageways that date back to the Middle Ages. I wanted a small, quaint place to dine with authentic regional cuisine: gnocchi, perhaps, the potato pasta that was invented in Nice; socca, the city’s signature crepes made from garbanzo meal; or the dish named for Nice, salad Nicoise — mixed greens with tuna, tomatoes, slices of hard-boiled egg and olives.

Chez Palmyre, one of several cafés in Rick Steves’ guide to the French Riviera — conveniently listed under the heading “Cheap Eats” — appeared to fit my goal of high quality at a low price. I pulled out the page with the restaurant address, grabbed my map and stepped out of the hotel into the brisk winter air. I walked along the Bay of Angels and turned away from the sea to enter Old Nice.

I followed Rue Droite, a long, narrow passageway that once served as the fastest route from the sea to the wall when Nice was a medieval fortress. As night fell, fewer and fewer others walked the avenue. Doubt nipped at my comfort level. Was I putting my safety at risk? Where is the restaurant?

No need to worry. Just as I was about to turn back, I noticed the faded sign with chipped red letters spelling Chez Palmyre. Peering through the single steamy window, I saw an eatery just wide enough for three tables on the left side and four on the right. Couples and families chatted away, all looking very French to my American eyes. Perfect.

Stepping inside, I surveyed the menu, handwritten in white Hearer, on the mirror above the tables. It swirled with options for each of the three courses of a fixed-price dinner.

Clueless about the language — in all my careful planning, I simply ignored the central fact that I speak fewer than 10 words of French — I pointed to one of the choices for the first course. The waiter served a plate of pulled duck, boiled potatoes and fresh herbs.

For the main course, I asked for the waiter’s recommendation. Fortunately, he understood my English.

“Alouettes,” he said, pointing to the phrase on the menu: “Alouettes Sans Tetes.”

“Fine! Alouettes,” I agreed, satisfied that a decision had been made, but once again having no idea what I would get.

I carefully copied the term “Alouettes Sans Tetes” into my journal. My French-English dictionary gave me the word-by-word translation: “Birds with their heads cut off.” Poultry?

While I waited for my order, I watched as the waiter delivered individual orange-enameled crock pots to other diners. When my pot arrived I discovered not headless birds but what looked like two small filets mignon swimming in a rich brown sauce.

Looking closer I found tender beef strips wrapped around a filling of spiced ground pork and beef.

After the beef rolls, it was time for tiramisu and coffee. The dessert arrived in a tiny chilled glass cylinder that revealed the layers of cream, mocha powder and cake. I savored each taste of delicate chocolate and sweet milk.

I asked for the bill, as one must in a country where diners and waiters are never in a hurry. The meal cost an astonishingly low 13.5 euros, about $20 at that time.

The dining experience that night was both authentic and inexpensive. Reluctant as I was to leave such a pleasant place, all good things must end. Under the star-peppered night sky, I strolled back to my hotel, satisfied that dreams can come true.

This story was published by the Benicia Herald.

Travels with Ben, Glacier Bay, Alaska

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Roar. We heard an earthquake-like rumble.

In Glacier Bay, an enormous, luminous, turquoise chunk sheared off the icepack and dropped in the water. The Grand Pacific Glacier calved before our eyes, as it had for John Muir on his Voyages of Discovery into Southeast Alaska. While Muir traveled by dugout canoe with the Tlingit Indians, we cruised on a small tour boat with a National Park Service naturalist.

“Mom, it’s awesome!” Ben said.  I shrugged as if to say he could find a better word.  He answered, “Okay! It’s glorious!” My fourteen-year-old’s eyes sparkled with a three-year-old’s look of wonder. The weary look born by too many video games slipped away.

Whoosh. Waves caused by the crashing ice rocked our ship. Silently, we exchanged wide-eyed glances. Transfixed, we feasted our eyes on the moment in time.

Whirr. A chill wind whisked off the glacier, swept through our layers of tee-shirts, wool sweaters, and windbreakers, brushed and reddened our faces.

Life stopped in Glacier Bay in the ice age. Rivers that once cascaded to the Pacific Ocean froze in time. These days, the aqua ice is melting.

Remember? Memory whispered, Remember how you first saw this when you were a young journalist, single, and so full of dreams?  Twenty some years had passed since a pilot friend had flown me to Gustavus, sending me on my first venture into Glacier Bay. Within a few years, I married, moved to California, became a mom, created a home, and taught school. In showing Alaska to Ben, I returned to a familiar place. I realized that I had revisited it many times. Memory had been my constant companion and Glacier Bay a favorite place to travel.

Life froze up after my divorce. The coldest years of my life were those when my son lived with his father, in a town 65 miles from mine, too far away to visit every day. Separation was hell, but a child can’t live in two places at one time.

I walked around in a trance during most of the week, waking only for our Tuesday night dinners and weekend visits. I felt most alive on summer vacations with Ben. My nirvana was spending time with my son 24/7, seeing him eat, sleep, walk, and do all the ordinary things every child does.

Fortunately, dark times are temporary for glaciers and families. Glaciers recede, transforming themselves into water and new land. Slowly but surely, plants and animals return.

Children grow into young adults. Because we didn’t live together when he was in the sixth through eleventh grades, I missed out on the fabric of his daily life. No longer was I his cook, driver, laundress or homework monitor. Through conversations and travel experiences, we formed a different relationship, a better one than we might have had in other circumstances.  Years passed quickly. Ben grew until he towered over me and went away to college. These days, he’s a college sophomore who visits on his college breaks. Even though this is the regular order of events, I appreciate any time I have with him, all the more, having survived those years of unwanted separation.

We reminisced about OUR TRIP TO Alaska at the Thanksgiving table. Ben said, “Mom, you should read the new research from Glacier Bay on ecological succession.”

Wonder of wonder, my child is a young adult with a vocabulary to match.  The travels we made have given us things to talk about and shared memories to treasure.

Life is bittersweet. If I could go back in time and change one thing, it would be seeing more of my child when he was growing up. I’m thankful that he is with me now. Hard times melted into better days.  My spirit filled with gratitude for life’s cycles. Endings bring new beginnings, renewal, and resurrection.

“Mom!” I heard Ben say. “Where did you go just now?”

“I was thinking about our trip to Alaska. And, yes, I’ll do that,” I said. “I’ll read the research on ecological succession in Glacier Bay. Meanwhile, please pass the cranberry sauce.”

This essay appeared in the online travel magazine Your Life is a Trip with the title “My Personal Glacier Bay” and in the Benicia Herald with its original title “Catching Time.”

photo by Alan Vernon.

Naked on the run, my amazing mother

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WHEN I WAS GROWING UP, MY MOTHER WHIRLED around the house like a cyclone, always racing against time. Mom ran the family insurance agency by day, pored over paperwork at night, and raised three children all the while. She countered Dad’s absences with her nonstop presence, managing to be in three places at once. She brought home the bacon and fried it too, though sometimes she was not necessarily fully dressed. I watched, naive about the skill and talent it took to play her role.

Marian Mietzner holding a future blogger.

Marian Mietzner holding a future blogger.

Decades later, a few months after Mom died, I returned to the small town where I was raised. I sat at a picnic table with others who had come back for the town’s 100-year anniversary. An older woman peered at me from the other end of the wooden bench and asked, “Is that you, Kristine?” The woman had been among the members of the Lutheran church that I attended when I was a girl.

“Yes,” I replied, and when she asked about my mother, I explained that Mom had passed away a few months earlier. Maybe the woman said she was sorry for my loss, but I don’t remember. Her next remark erased any condolences that may have been expressed.

The woman said, “One thing I remember about your mother was the time we were packing up boxes in your house when you were moving. She was gone for a little while and then she walked by stark naked.” People around the table smiled nervously.

True, Mom tended to change clothes a lot, especially in hot, sticky weather. When she appeared in her birthday suit among women friends, it must have been a sweltering hot day. Mom must have been getting into something more comfortable. She might have been going for a laugh, but more likely she was just hard-pressed to accomplish all that needed to be done.

Looking back at the picnic table encounter, I wish I’d had been quick enough to give the lady a piece of my mind. In my imagination, I stared her down and said, “I’m not surprised at your story. My mother had more spirit than anyone I’ve ever met.” But at the time I squirmed and remained speechless, somewhat unraveled by the comment. I’ve been composing my reply ever since.

Mom took care of us the best way she knew how. Without question she let things slip at times, and on some occasions it was her robe. She was no more or less perfect than any other woman acting in a role that must be played 24-7. Mom fed, clothed, shopped and cooked for my sister, brother and me. She whirled through our lives day after day, sometimes dressed, sometimes not so much.

While getting dressed, if Mom needed something in another part of the house, she grabbed a bathrobe, but didn’t waste time putting it on. She hugged it across her full breasts while she dashed from her bedroom to the laundry room to get whatever she needed. I rolled my eyes and groaned silently during those moments.

We were all aware of Mom’s sharp tongue, but I was never brave enough to suggest that she cover herself. I thought, “Mom! Can’t you please get some clothes on? Good grief.” Unacquainted with the amount of work Mom handled without complaint, I felt certain I would never be like her when it was my turn to raise a family. It was only after raising children of my own that I grew to truly appreciate my mother.

Mom zipped around trying the best she could to get everything done when so much of the load was on her bare shoulders. If parts of her body were not fully clothed, well then, she must have been in a hurry. We all get rushed sometimes. I was such an ingrate back then. What I wouldn’t do now for one more day with Mom, one more chance to thank her for all she did for me (and many others). I aspire to be more like her, not less.

I like to think I transformed over time from a clueless child to a grateful daughter. In any case, I’m sure I could have told my mother more often how much I appreciated her. If anyone tells me the naked truth about my mother in the future, I’ll be ready with a fully dressed response.

This piece appeared in the Benicia Herald newspaper in August of 2015.