Tuesday, November 29, 2016


I have a dear Catholic friend named Diane who, about a year ago, invited me to go on a retreat with her to a Benedictine monastery in Valyermo, California, just over an hour from where we live. It was somewhat out of my comfort zone but exactly the type of interfaith experience I have learned to value, so I accepted her invitation. The earliest my schedule and the retreat schedule matched up, however, was the second week in July, so I had to wait a while.

It was worth the wait, and in fact I think I will go again if given the opportunity. I found at least ten things that visitors need to see/experience when at St. Andrew's Abbey in Valyermo.

St. Benedict, who lived in Italy from c. 480-543 AD, is often called "The Founder of Western Monasticism" and is the Patron Saint of Europe. The Benedictines observe a strict daily schedule revolving around gathering in the monastery chapel five times a day for prayer. Guests are not required to attend all (or even any) of those prayers, but I tried to go with Diane (who went to them all) to two or three each day. The focus on prayer is one of the things that makes visiting St. Andrew's a unique spiritual experience.

Resounding peals of the bell standing outside the chapel call the monks and guests to prayer four times a day. (Out of respect for sleepy guests, the monks don't ring the bell for the earliest prayer at 6:00 AM, which I confess I never attended).

                                                                 This is the daily schedule:
6:00 AM: VIGILS (The first communal prayer of the morning)
6:30-7:30: Lecto Divina (Contemplative scripture study)
7:30: LAUDS (Morning prayer)
8:00: Breakfast (Eaten in total silence, called "Grand Silence")
8:30-11:30: Assigned labor or study (This was the first of our two daily session of lecture/discussion for the retreat)
12:00 PM: Conventional MASS
1:00: Lunch with guests
1:30-4:00: Assigned labor or study (Session two of retreat lectures and discussion)
4:00-5:30: Study, rest, exercise
5:30: Lectio Divina
6:00: VESPERS (Evening prayer)
6:30: Dinner (in silence)
8:00-8:30: Community recreation
8:30: COMPLINE (Night prayer)

The Benedictine liturgy and music focuses on the Psalms, which the monks sing through completely (even the more violent or salacious psalms) every month or so as part of their prayer services. One of the monks is the "lead" singer or cantor (I'm not sure if that is the correct term). He sings his part, and then the other monks and congregants sing other parts, sometimes a capella, sometimes accompanied by a small organ.

Saturday, November 26, 2016


I always thought "Upstate New York" referred to the northern portion of New York State, but it really refers to just about everything north of New York City, which means most of the state. The map below shows "downstate New York" broken off from the rest of the state. Are all Westerners as clueless as I am?
Map from here
Therefore, all of the places we visited outside of NYC were "Upstate," even though some of them were within an hour's drive of the city. However, Upstate and Downstate New York are very distinct. The population of the 4,000 square miles that make up Downstate NY is over 12 million, while the population of the 54,500 miles that are Upstate NY is 7 million.  The population density is 3,077 people/square mile in Downstate NY and 130 people/square mile in Upstate New York. BIG difference.

We loved driving around in Upstate New York, even though we never made it to Upper Upstate New York. The drive from Albany back to NYC reminds me of West Virginia, hilly and heavily wooded.

Thursday, November 24, 2016


What New York's State Capital Albany lacks in population (just under 100,000 people), it more than makes up for in history. It was settled by the Dutch, who built two fur trading posts--Fort Nassau and Fort Orange--at this site in 1614 and 1624, making it the oldest settlement in New York. The British took over the Dutch settlements in 1664 and renamed the colony Albany to honor the Duke of Albany, who would become King James II of England in 1685 (and be deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688). Albany was officially chartered in 1686 and is the oldest chartered city in the United States and one of the oldest surviving colonies of the original thirteen British colonies.

There are lots of signs related to Albany's historicity scattered around the state capitol area:

Don't you wish you could sit on the bench and chat with this friendly green fellow? Lewis A. Swyer was a a founding member of the New York State Council of the Arts and the owner of a construction company that built some of the region's landmarks. He died in 1988 at age 70:

It was too early for wildflowers, but I was still drawn to a fallow flowerbed marked by this tribute. Irving and Elaine Kirsch were philanthropists who supported everything from the arts to park beautification to senior services. They were known for being great dancers, and effervescent Elaine was called "The Queen of Albany." Irving died in 1999, and Elaine lived on for 14 more years, doing good deeds everywhere she went. I love this marker. Irving sounds like an adoring husband.

Speaking of flowers, I wish I had gotten a better photo of this somewhat bizarre tulip statue, certainly a nod to the Dutch ancestry of the citizenry:

No, it's not a Romanesque church (as we first thought it was)--it's Albany City Hall, built in 1883. The 202-foot-tall tower on the corner has one of the only municipal carillons in the country.

Monday, November 21, 2016


Relatively recently we added state capitals and state capitol buildings to our LISTS OF THINGS TO SEE. That meant that on our last trip to New York, we had to take a major detour to get to the state capital/capitol in Albany, which is about 150 miles north of New York City.

Although only the 16th tallest building in Albany, the capitol, with its castle-like turrets, definitely dominates the skyline. Here's a view from the freeway:

New York, originally called New Netherland (with present-day New York City being New Amsterdam), was settled by the Dutch, and I thought this capitol building looked very Dutch:

Compare it to the town hall in Amsterdam: 

However, many accuse the architects of trying to imitate the Hotel de Ville in Paris, which is perhaps a better comparison:
Photo from here
A blend of Italian Renaissance, Romanesque, and French Renaissance styles, the Albany capitol is said to be the most artistically elaborate state capitol ever built in the United States. I love the long walkway that gives visitors ample time to appreciate the majestic architecture. I could imagine red carpet rolling out in front of us as we approached, and maybe a trumpet or two sounding our arrival:

Friday, November 18, 2016


Two miles east of the Roosevelt home and Presidential Museum and Library lies a beautiful patch of ground with a lazy stream running through it. Fallkill Stream meanders for 38 miles before it joins the mighty Hudson in Poughkeepsie. Franklin Roosevelt purchased 181 acres here in 1911, and the land was often used for family picnics and gatherings with friends.

In the 1920s, Franklin encouraged Eleanor to develop this piece of land, which she named "Val-Kill," loosely translated from the Dutch to mean "waterfall stream."  "Kill," the Dutch word for "stream" or "creek," is a common part of compound words in this part of New York--think "Schuylkill River" or "Catskill Mountains."

Saturday, November 12, 2016


We love Presidential Museums and Libraries. There are thirteen, and with our visit to the Franklin D. Roosevelt site, we have toured twelve of them. The only one we have left to go is the Gerald R. Ford site, which is actually divided between two places: the Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The FDR Museum and Library is located in Hyde Park on the large estate where Franklin, the only son of wealthy parents, grew up.

One area of the museum gives information about Franklin's and Eleanor's ancestry and childhoods:

FDR's illustrious ancestors:

The 10 lb. baby boy referenced below is none other than FDR, and that's his bassinet on the right:

The picture on the left shows Eleanor (Franklin's 5th cousin) with her two little brothers, and the picture on the right shows her at age 14:

Franklin was 20 and Eleanor was 18 when they began courting. They were married in 1905, and Eleanor's uncle--President Teddy Roosevelt--gave away the bride.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016


About 90 miles due north of New York City, just north of Poughkeepsie and on the Hudson River, lies Hyde Park, the hometown of the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

With about 22,000 residents, Hyde Park is relatively small compared to some of its famous neighbors, but it's a pretty upscale place, a fitting hometown for one of America's royal families--the Roosevelts.

And there they are, Eleanor and Franklin, waiting to entertain any visitors in their outdoor reception area:
The statue was adapted from a picture taken of the couple in 1933 right here in Hyde Park.