Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Catacombs- Myth and Reality

Our tour group in the catacombs

It’s just a myth.  Movies and novels have popularized the idea that underground catacombs were used as hiding places for Christians escaping persecution. I learned on my visit to Rome this is a myth. My husband and I toured the San Sebastian catacombs, one of sixty catacomb complexes just outside of Rome. Nearly 7 million people were buried in these subterranean chambers between the second and fifth century.

 In ancient Rome burial was not allowed within the city walls so most Romans were cremated. However Christians preferred burial because they believed in the bodily resurrection of the dead. Christian estate owners outside of the city provided land that could be used for burial. In order to make maximum use of the property the catacombs were dug very deep. The San Sebastian catacombs had five levels and stretched 17 kilometers. 

Our catacomb guide

The first thing our guide did was turn off the lights so we could experience how pitch-black it would have been in a catacomb. That combined with the 95% humidity and the overwhelming stench of all those rotting bodies would have made it virtually impossible for anyone to hide in a catacomb for long. While the catacombs were being constructed skylights provided ventilation and light but when the building was complete these were closed. Our guide also told us there were detailed blueprints showing the layout of the catacombs. The Romans knew where all the entrances were. If Christians had tried to hide there they would have easily been discovered.      

Fish symbol on the catacomb walls

The catacombs were big business. People paid lots of money to be buried in them especially in a coveted spot close to a martyr.  Constantine spoiled that economic opportunity when he endorsed Christianity as the state religion, thus ending martyrdom. If families wanted a painting or a special symbol like a cross, a dove or a fish on the rock face near the burial spot they had to pay quite a bit extra.   

Burial room

 We toured different kinds of burial sites. Families could purchase an entire room and be buried together. We saw longer shelves in the walls for adults, although not that long, because in the third century the tallest Roman was only five feet. There were larger arched nooks where seven or eight people could be buried together.  The kind of burial opening that seemed most prevalent was the small one for children. The infant mortality rate at the time was very high.

Catacomb corridor

  The catacombs continued to be used till around 540 when barbarian Goths and Vandals began attacking Rome making it too dangerous to leave the city for burials. It became more common for people to be buried in or near the churches and basilicas inside Rome. These invaders looted the catacombs and many were flooded over time. By the 8th century most of the saintly relics from the catacombs had been moved to churches in Rome and the catacombs were abandoned. They were rediscovered by accident in 1578 but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that Italian archeologists began excavating them. This was dangerous work. Our guide told us one archeologist got lost in a catacomb maze for five days and nearly died

Dave in catacombs

Five Roman catacomb complexes have been partially opened and fortified to make them safe for visitors. Mussolini gave control of the catacombs to the Catholic Church in 1929 so they are in charge of maintaining the sites now. Having only seen the catacombs vicariously in movies like Angels and Demons I appreciated the opportunity to tour them in person and learn both the myths and facts about them.

You might want to read some other posts about our visits to Italy…….

Visiting Pompei      

A Bizarre Museum in Florence  

Galileo’s Grocery List    

Michelangelo’s David                      


Filed under Italy, Movies, Religion

Lessons From Leonard

I enjoyed an excellent concert by Canadian music icon Leonard Cohen Friday night. The show was at Winnipeg’s MTS Centre and I was lucky enough to be there along with thousands of other Manitoba music enthusiasts. What lessons did I learn from Cohen as I watched him perform?  Leonard is 78, nearly two decades older than me. I hope as I age I can emulate him in some ways. Like Leonard I want to……….

1) Keep physically fit. I’d be happy to have even half his energy and stamina. The very trim singer and poet stood on stage for over three hours performing song after song. He often struck a prayerful pose, getting down on his knees and then getting up with more grace and agility then would be possible for most people many years his junior. He almost skipped off stage at one point. In his black suit, white shirt, bolo tie and signature fedora he looked very physically fit and attractive indeed, lean and craggy.

2) Keep being creative. Leonard is still writing new songs and poetry. He could easily rest on his laurels and live off the profits of his numerous hits.  He performed some of his classic signature pieces at his Winnipeg concert including Bird On a Wire, Suzanne, Anthem and the iconic Hallelujah. But he has also released a new album recently called Old Ideas and he performed songs from it as well like Anyhow, Show Me the Place and Going Home.

3) Keep spiritually in tune.  Leonard is a practicing Buddhist but the Jewish faith of his family remains very important to him. The lyrics of many of the songs he performed in Winnipeg attest to his knowledge of the Bible, his belief that faith and hope can heal us and his desire for a world where we value mercy and forgiveness. As I listened to the beautiful If It Be Your Will I whispered to my sister, whose guest I was at the concert, “This sounds just like a hymn.”

4) Keep humble. Leonard was of course the star of the show on Friday night but he didn’t hog centre stage, rather he repeatedly acknowledged the work of the talented musicians and singers who accompanied him, introducing them by name at least four times during the evening and giving them an opportunity to showcase their considerable musical gifts in various songs. He individually thanked all his instrument, lighting and sound technicians. Very classy! Leonard also paid tribute to Canadian music legends George Jones, Tom Connors and Rita MacNeil who have all passed away in the last few months.

5) Keep appreciating the beauty of love. Leonard is the master of the romantic song and when his incredibly deep, husky and oh yes, sexy voice sang I’m Your Man, Dance Me to the End of Love and There Ain’t No Cure For Love I’m sure most of the women in the audience had tears in their eyes. I know I did!

6) Keep on being grateful. I don’t know how many times Leonard thanked the audience during his concert. He was genuinely appreciative of our presence and made sure we knew it. In an article in an Atlantic City arts magazine Cohen is described as having an abiding gratitude about his success as a musician.

There are probably some things about Leonard Cohen’s life, like all our lives, that aren’t exemplary, but watching him perform on April 26th I learned six valuable and inspiring lessons. Thanks Leonard!

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Filed under Canada, Culture, Music, Winnipeg

Music Across the Generations

I had a chance to visit a Kindermusik class last week.   Kindermusik is a program that introduces young children to music and movement. It’s been around for forty years and operates in seventy countries.  

The class was fun! The children were all under two years old and they crawled around exploring the space and we sang together, danced together and played games. 

At one point the teacher put on a recording of a song I knew well. I had heard my mother playing it on the piano and singing it when I was a child. My Mom has a wonderful musical ear and on Sunday afternoons when we were growing up she routinely indulged in an hour or so at the piano playing from memory a medley of favorite tunes from her youth. Let Me Call You Sweetheart was a song Mom often played and sang along to. When the Kindermusik teacher put it on to accompany our dancing I recognized it right away and sang along softly.

I wondered why the teacher had chosen such an old song for such young children and she explained.  The Kindermusik organization has Let Me Call You Sweetheart in their song repertoire because in some cities they hold a series of classes in senior citizens’ homes. The residents participate with the children. It is stimulating for the seniors and they love having the children there. The success of this program has led to a similar one where Kindermusik classes are held on Alzheimer hospital wards. Old songs like Let Me Call You Sweetheart are played because while people suffering from dementia forget many things, their musical memory is often intact and they can recall songs from their youth and will sing and move along to the music with the visiting toddlers.

That got me thinking about how little opportunity people from the very oldest and very youngest generations have to interact in our present day. This used to happen in homes and neighborhoods since elderly people lived with their families. Now seniors live in nursing homes and seniors’ apartment complexes. Intergenerational interaction used to happen at churches. But now many young families don’t attend church and seniors often listen or watch worship services telecast into their care homes.

In 2013 we probably need to be more deliberate about initiatives like the one Kindermusik is trying, that provide an opportunity for the very oldest and very youngest generations to interact and enrich one another’s lives.

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Filed under Childhood, Music, Retirement

Will Spring Come?

from the plane windowI just got home from Saskatoon and as this photo from the plane window shows the fields  are still covered in snow. snow covered sidwalkSomeone in Saskatoon told me this is the coldest March and April they’ve had in 130 years. 

mendel art gallery conservatoryThe only hint of spring I found in Saskatoon was in the beautiful Mendel Art Gallery conservatory. 

lake covered in snow

Looking at a lake covered in snow and ice from the plane it feels like it will be a very long time before we see………….flowers in the mendel art gallery
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The Value of Silence

“You should aim for twenty minutes of silence a day.”  A speaker in the church I attended last Sunday emphasized the important role silence can play in helping us become happier and healthier people. We lead busy lives constantly moving from one activity to another, and in the moments between our appointments and commitments we are engaged with all kinds of media. Many of us forget to make space for silence in our lives. The pastor shared her belief that we all need times of silence where we just ‘listen’ to our thoughts, to our emotions, and if we are people of faith, to God. She told us making room for absolute silence in our lives might not be as easy as we think. From her own experience she suggested we start off trying for two minutes of complete silence and then work our way up to her suggested twenty minutes.

 tao fong shan mountain of the christ wind church hong kongDuring the six years we lived in Hong Kong we attended a church situated at the top of a mountain. It was called Tao Fong Shan or Mountain of the Christ Wind.  Sometimes early Sunday morning I would hike up the mountain and spend time in the stone crypt beneath the church. Life in Hong Kong was hectic and it wasn’t easy to switch into neutral gear on the weekends. Visiting the quiet crypt forced me to be silent. I felt so peaceful on those mornings with sunlight streaming in through the stained glass window the only sound the wind and the birds. The underground crypt provided a refreshing cool sanctuary from the humid heat of the city and spending time there meditating and thinking rejuvenated me and gave me energy to face the busy week ahead.

tao fong shanOnce a month at Tao Fong Shan we had Taize worship services, named after a monastic community in France and emulating their style of worship. Although there was some prayer, singing and reading of Scripture, for the majority of the service we sat in meditative silence. The first few times I attended the services I was slightly uncomfortable, but it wasn’t long before I began to look forward to those Sundays and the opportunity they provided to centre myself and rest.

I belong to a writers group and one of our members told us recently he only really began to write when he found a way to carve out time apart from his family in a quiet spot, so he could be alone with his thoughts, recharge his creative energy and find inspiration. Consultants who advise business clients on ways to make their employees more productive often mention the importance of providing time and space for solitary silence in the work place. Life coaches who help people looking for a more meaningful, fruitful life frequently talk to clients about the value of silence; time spent listening to their inner voice and figuring out exactly what it is they want to achieve in the future.

 My husband was on a golfing holiday in Florida this past week and I was home alone. It would have been a perfect opportunity for me to experience some personal silent time, but instead I found myself turning on the television just to keep me company in our empty home. When I took a forty five minute drive on Saturday to visit a friend I had the radio on the whole way. As I walked to my various work commitments in Winnipeg I usually had my i-pod with me and was listening to music, a podcast, or my French lessons. Clearly I need to make time for silence in my life.

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Filed under Hong Kong, Reflections, Religion

Don’t Despair! Spring is on It’s Way!

IMG_5763Yesterday I spotted these two lonely Canada geese on the playground of an elementary school I was visiting. As you can see from the snowman and hockey net in the background it is still winter here in Winnipeg even though the calendar says it’s the middle of April. 

canada geese on school playground in winnipegAs I walked by the playground I met a little girl about six years old in a pink parka, plaid ski pants, furry white hat and big boots. She was on her way to school with her Mom. They were late and her Mom kept urging her to hurry but she couldn’t take her eyes off those Canada geese and was chattering away providing a running commentary about everything they were doing. “Do you see the geese?” she asked me eagerly. “They are trying to peck through the ice with their beaks to get grass to eat.”

canada geese on iceWe entered the school through different doors but I met her a few minutes later in the hallway outside her classroom. She was taking off her outdoor clothes and when she saw me she whispered,  “Do you want to know a secret?” I nodded. She continued on her voice now live with excitement, her eyes wide and dancing. “Do you know what Canada geese mean?” she asked. “No. I don’t,” I said. “They’re a sign of spring!” she declared. “We saw the geese so we know spring is coming.” 

So there you have it! Don’t despair! Spring is coming to Winnipeg. A little girl told me. 

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Filed under Canada, Education, Nature, Winnipeg

A Zombie Apocalypse- Why Do Teens Like Dystopian Literature?

A Zombie Apocalypse. That was the title of projects kids were working on in a grade seven classroom I visited recently as a university education supervisor. The lengthy assignment required students to do all kinds of reading, writing and critical thinking as they contemplated a dystopian future in which most of the earth’s inhabitants had died. Only a few hardy survivors were left to combat powerful zombies who had taken over the world.

I questioned the teacher about the assignment and she pointed out the many curricular outcomes the project addressed but she also said she had chosen a theme she knew would capture her students’ interest and imaginations. “Kids this age love end of the world survival scenarios,” she said.  “That’s why the Hunger Games movies and books are so popular.” 

My friend Melinda has written several dystopian novels

A quick check of dystopian literature for teens on the websites of several major book retailers revealed a myriad of titles with names like The Eleventh Plague, Gone, Divergent, Ashes, The Maze Runner, Wither, Uglies and The Bar Code Tattoo.

I was curious about what attracts today’s young teens to stories about a future time when the world has fallen into a chaotic state brought about by environmental disaster, totalitarian governments or dehumanizing societal norms. Are they attracted to these stories because they honestly believe our world has no hopeful future?

Joann Wasik a Boston librarian thinks teens like these books and movies because characters in them typically struggle against unfair circumstances that leave them feeling they have little control over their lives. Teens often feel that way too. They are at the mercy of parents, teachers, coaches and must follow rules and regulations they didn’t make. Wasik says some special interest groups want to ban dystopian books from classrooms. ‘Dystopia’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘bad place’ and these novels portray a grim future.  But Wasik thinks they serve an important function in helping kids see how power can both corrupt and also be used for the greater good. The teacher I observed introducing the Zombie Apocalypse project was using it to help kids recognize and appreciate the human rights they enjoy in Canada and not take them for granted.

An Arizona librarian, Jennifer Kendall, thinks teens are attracted to dystopian stories because their heroes, who are usually teenagers, get to perform ultimate acts of rebellion against authority and have to rely on themselves.  

Moira Young a columnist for the London newspaper, The Guardian says its silly to read all kinds of things into kids’ fascination with these end times books and movies. They are simply exciting stories where a hero, frequently someone their age, confronts evil and in many cases overcomes it. It’s a tried and true literary theme that’s always attracted, readers.

Collage of Dystopian Teen Novels from the Ed Times Youth Blog

Tara Anderson, a North Carolina librarian and PhD candidate in education, claims teens understand the future of our world may be difficult.  They know the economy and the environment are struggling. Especially in America, there are deep political divisions over ethical and social issues. Family life is changing. Divorce rates are high. However, in many dystopian novels and movies, one person is the catalyst to bring about positive change and young people believe it could be them.

I asked the teacher who had planned the apocalypse project what she had in mind for the next assignment for her students. “I’m going to have them design a utopia,” she said, “ a perfect world where everyone’s human rights are respected and people live in peace and harmony. I want them to imagine what that would be like.” 

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Filed under Books, Childhood, Education, Writing

No Ordinary People

“There are no ordinary people,” said C.S. Lewis.  Last week I certainly had evidence of that!

“They told me they only promoted married men. That’s when I knew I needed a change.”  While doing some volunteer work I met a woman who’d emigrated from Ireland to Canada forty years ago. The bank she worked for in Ireland told her though her work was stellar she couldn’t be promoted. Men needed to be assigned the better paying jobs to support their families. The woman went right down to the Canadian embassy and investigated the possibility of moving to Canada. She and her husband were rated excellent candidates for immigration and asked where they wanted to live. They knew little about Canada and so the official interviewing them suggested the middle of the country, a place called Manitoba.  “We’ve never been sorry,” said the woman who went on to tell me stories about her family and her successful Canadian banking career as well as her plans to travel back to Ireland this summer.

“I do many different kinds of art.”  In church on Sunday I met a man who created a statue I walk by almost everyday. Outside the Air Canada building in Winnipeg’s downtown is a huge sculpture called The Pigeon King. The man I met in church created it. I learned he was from my mom’s hometown of Drake, Saskatchewan and has worked as an animator, sculptor, costume designer, filmmaker, composer and teacher.

“It’s called Through the Window of a Train.”  I went out for coffee with a British woman from my children’s writers’ group and she told me about a project she had worked on for many years. She loves train travel and after moving to Canada she collected stories from people who had worked and traveled on Canadian Pacific Railway trains. She edited an anthology of their stories and went to great lengths to get the book published.

 “ I travel to China all the time. It’s where we have many of our factories.”  My husband and I attended a dinner for residents of Winnipeg’s Exchange District.  One couple at our table was a man from Argentina married to a woman who was the head of her family’s clothing manufacturing company. Much of their stock was manufactured in various cities in main land China. All of the cities were places we had visited so we had an excellent discussion about the pros and cons of manufacturing Canadian products in Asia. The woman had also lived and traveled extensively in Israel and since I had been there too we compared notes on those experiences as well.

 “I’ve written quite a number of books.”  I was assigned as a mentor for a white-haired gentleman who was just beginning to work as a volunteer tour guide at the art gallery. I discovered he had a doctorate from a prestigious American university, was a specialist in children’s literature, a retired professor and had written not only textbooks, but several novels for young people as well. We had a great discussion about the subject of his current book and it gave me an idea for a blog on children’s literature I contribute to on a regular basis.

I met some other interesting people last week–the writer of numerous books of published poetry, a forty year old medical researcher whose decided to go back to university to become a writer, a young man working on his masters degree in physics and economics who loves Russian art, and a dental hygienist whose expecting her first child and just spent four months living in France.

The world is indeed full of interesting people and I’m looking forward to the ones I’ll meet this coming week. 

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Filed under People