Learn something new every day

When we were children, one of my siblings or I would often share at the dinner table something we had learned at school or in our reading. I can still hear, down to the enthusiastic tone of his voice, my dad saying, ‘well, is that right? You learn something new every day!’ Over the years, that has morphed into a precept for me. I don’t consciously set out to learn something new every day, but I like it when I do. It’s not usually something earth-shattering – it could be as simple as the term for when horses lie down with their legs curled under them (sternal recumbency) or how to use the timer on a microwave.

What brings this to mind is a visit earlier this week to Santa Maria del Fiore, otherwise known as the Duomo. If you’ve seen my photos from previous visits to Florence, you may know that I am obsessed with this church, specifically with the dome, an obsession which has its roots in reading Ross King’s “Brunelleschi’s Dome.” However, I’ve always thought the interior was rather bare and not that interesting.

During my visit, which started out as a cursory paying of my respects, I decided to rent an audio guide. Well! It was so interesting. For example, this clock, painted by Paulo Uccello, is a twenty-four hour clock with a single hand that moves counter-clockwise by current standards. It marks time from sunset of the day before, so that the 24th hour is sunset of the current day, and has to be adjusted to sync with solar time. The clock still works.

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Walking through the Duomo, I heard:

  • about the paintings, such as this one of Dante, holding a copy of The Divine Comedy, with depictions of Purgatory, Hell, and Heaven, and in the background, Florence, the city that exiled him.

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  • that the choir, situated under the dome, is octagonal, echoing the shape of the dome, and that the octagon is a symbol of the Resurrection.
  • about some of the symbolism of the Last Judgment frescoes, including that the figure of Father Time handing over the hourglass represents the ending of man’s time.

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I also heard a few words with definitions new to me:  drum (“a round wall or structure that supports a dome”), pilaster (“a rectangular column that is attached to a wall and that is used for decoration or support”), and tondo (“a sculptured medallion”).

I learned a lot listening to the audio tour and it gave me a new appreciation for the interior of the Duomo. Perhaps as importantly, I re-learned to not assume that I know everything about a subject just because I know some things!

Definitions: Merriam-Webster. 2014. Web.

“Old” dog, new tricks

One of the most liberating moments of my life occurred when I was around 30 and decided that I was never going to be a seamstress. My aunt and cousin sewed and I aspired to be like them—the kind of person who could make her own clothes. The reality was that I wasn’t good at any of the skills involved—I couldn’t figure out patterns, I couldn’t cut fabric properly, sewing machines flustered me, and basically, I hated the whole process. Even hemming a pair of pants was an exercise in frustration and when I almost ruined a pair by hemming one leg higher than the other, I decided to let professionals handle the sewing from then on. I can sew on buttons and make minor repairs, but a weight rolled off my shoulders when I let go of sewing as a hobby.

From talking to friends in my age group, I know this is one of the things we enjoy about getting older—letting go of some of the activities that we think we ‘should’ or ‘have’ to do. For one thing, as a friend of mine said a couple of years ago, we don’t have time to do something that we don’t like for ten years before deciding to make a switch.

On the other hand, I love to learn, as do many of my contemporaries, and I do like to try different things. There is more and more evidence that staying engaged mentally, physically, and emotionally can prevent or delay the onset of dementia and other diseases on that spectrum, like Alzheimer’s. So how do we strike that balance of not wasting time on activities we don’t like, yet being open to learning new things? Perhaps, as another friend suggested, the trick is to at least try a new hobby, or read a challenging book, or learn a new exercise. As I have said in another context, we don’t have to do it forever, just give it a try.

Now realistically, I know there are some things I am unlikely to try—downhill skiing comes to mind as it’s a high risk activity for someone with knees like mine! However, this does bring me to the point of the picture below. I mentioned to my sister Nancy a couple of months ago that I needed something to do when I turned off my computer in the evening, but wasn’t ready to go to bed. I read a lot, but I wanted something in the craft line that had a low cost of entry. She suggested we ask her friend Suanne to teach us to crochet. I was doubtful, as a related craft—knitting—ranked right up there with sewing as something I was horrible at, but I vowed to myself that I would remain open to it.

The first project, a dishcloth, was unraveled and re-crocheted so many times, I finally had to discard the yarn because it was so tattered. However, I have now crocheted a shawl for my mother, a baby blanket for a colleague of my brother-in-law’s, and an infinity scarf for my niece. They’ve all been challenges and none of them are perfect, but I’ve enjoyed working with the colors and have found the process (when I’m not frustrated) relaxing. I hope my brain appreciates what I’ve done for it!

Crochet collage

Clockwise from left: shawl; baby blanket; infinity scarf.

P.S.  I didn’t like using the word ‘old’ in the title of this post—remember the title of my blog!—but somehow, ‘middle-aged dog’ just didn’t sound right.