Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Village’s Friendly Reminder


We have been eating into the spirit of the season — or eating ON the spirit of the season, to put a finer point on the matter.  A few weeks ago Lori retrieved from the cabinet downstairs our set of “Thanksgiving dishes” to enjoy in these waning days of autumn.

Called “The Friendly Village”, our little set consists of four place settings of this English China made by Johnson Brothers.  I don’t really know why we think of them as particular to Thanksgiving, lacking as they do the usual cornucopia and turkey iconography.  Perhaps it is the way their quaint brown images artfully and unobtrusively blur the transition between autumn and winter — precisely as late November is prone to do — with their snowy rural scenes encircled by fallen leaves and berries.  They are somehow warming, despite their chilly depictions; sweet and nostalgically bucolic.  They rather "feel like" the season, even if no pilgrims are pictured.

Warming, then, but also bittersweet, which perhaps accounts for their several years of neglect. The set was a gift received early in my ministry in Des Moines.  I don’t recall it to have been a special occasion — a birthday or Christmas or the like; we weren’t, in that way, in the habit of exchanging such gifts between pastor and people.  I rather recall it to have been something of a sunlit intervention in a particularly dark season of my life — a gesture of grace meant to convey sympathetic support.   A kindness more than anything.  But whatever the impetus, into my office one day breezed Evelyn carrying a wrapped box from which I later excavated the dishes.  A gift, as it were, from Harry and Evelyn, although it likely would have been news to Harry.

I had primarily known Harry and Evelyn as pleasant-faced members of the church’s older generation — reliably present among the pews on Sunday but otherwise peripheral to the busyness of congregational life.  They were kindly and implicitly supportive, but hardly the chatty type.  Other than the perfunctory exchanges of social obligation, I doubt we had ever enjoyed a true conversation.  I did not know them well, and yet here she was bearing gifts.

I’ll admit that while I was touched by the thoughtfulness, the dishes themselves left me...well, let’s say “neutral.”  Chalk it up to the superficial snobbery of youth, they didn’t really fit into my “aesthetic”.  Striking me as something more befitting my grandparents’ table than mine, I dutifully used them on seasonal occasions,  but they more generally lived toward the rear of the cabinet.

And then they began to haunt me.  In the years following the gift given and received, I rocked along through my tenure, busy with many things in my personal and professional life.  The church bustled programmatically along, the kids grew up; I got married, and Harry and Evelyn aged.  Eventually Evelyn went into a special care center on the far side of town and, left to his own religious devices, Harry sort of drifted away.  I visited Evelyn a time or two, but her memory issues made for challenging conversations, and I conveniently got lost in the proliferation of many and simpler things.  Or perhaps more truthfully put, Evelyn got lost in my proliferation of those many and simpler things.  The sum of it is that I neglected her —pastorally abandoned her and, by extension, Harry.  They eventually died largely forgotten by the church they had loved, save but one or two attentive friends.  And I grieve that negligence to this day.  

Which explains the bitter-sweetness of pulling out those dishes each year and setting the November table.  Their “aesthetic”, for one thing, is more compatible now — we have become, after all, the grandparents to whom I once consigned them; and God knows a “Friendly Village” is something toward which we can use every encouragement.  But mostly we use them to remember — Harry and Evelyn, to be sure — but more broadly the painful regret of negligent forgetting.  We eat off of these dishes to remind us to notice, to reach out, to be instigators in ways that we are able of precisely that “Friendly Village” in which we long to live; one encircling especially those more present to us who we easily forget or neglect.    

It’s just a small set of four, and we are only two, but whatever their other virtues and value, the dishes remind us that every village starts somewhere, and this one might as well start at our table...

...or yours, for that matter...

...Remembering, and giving thanks.

And reaching out.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Maybe You Cry Too

“I wonder if maybe I had a heart attack sometime without knowing it,” I mused aloud.  “I’ve heard that people get more emotional after heart attacks.”  

Because it seems like I’m awfully emotional these days.  

Now, people who have orbited in my universe for any time at all will no doubt smile at such a speculation.  They would tell you that I’ve never had too much trouble getting emotional.  Despite my most willful intentions tears have leaked through the years into sermons, splashed  onto poignant passages of books and drowned out musical lyrics, while throat lumps interrupted conversation.  It doesn’t take a very deep well to drill into my personal water table.  

That noted, however, my tears these days seem to be ever more readily available.  

It could be, I suppose, that I’m simply and increasingly “losing it” — becoming more and more fragile, unstable and vulnerable to the shifting breezes regardless if they are favorable or deleterious.   I doubt it, but check with my wife who likely has better perspective on this question.

It could also be that there are simply more reasons to cry — a fact virtually indisputable.  
Think Puerto Rico and Houston and Miami and their hurricane-devastated lives.  
Think Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, TX and their bullet-riddled bodies.
Think the record-breaking 24 homicides so far in low-key, middle-of-the-road, heart-beat of the flyover zone Des Moines this year — or is it already 25?
Think Bill Clinton and Donald Trump and Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes and Bill O’Riley and Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey and Louis CK and God knows how many others with their trailing wastelands of despicable behaviors that they somehow viewed, in their oddly dystopian parallel universes, to be normal and acceptable.
And think of the way the rest of us find ourselves interacting with one another, what with our incendiary social media posts and put downs.  

Who is there to listen?  We suddenly find ourselves surrounded by “voices” — “conservative” voices, “progressive” voices, voices “of the people”, and more.  And don’t misunderstand me, I’m not interested in silencing anyone.  Indeed, too many have been silenced for too long and who need, at long last, to be heard.  But therein lies my anguish.  No one is actually hearing them — listening, seeking to understand.  Once upon a time that was the purview of town halls and civic organizations and churches.  But town halls have been politicized, civic organizations, such as still exist, slide into the lowest common programmatic denominators, and churches have become simply one more “voice”, intoned with righteous — or is it sanctimonious? — edge.  

I rather think, moreso than “voices”, we could benefit these days from a few more true, unpretentious and resilient communities in which people take the time to actually listen to voices other than their own; in which “respect” is as much practiced as demanded; in which “wonder” and “curiosity” and “concern” are encouraged and nourished even when they drift into possibilities contrary to my entrenched dogmas; and in which we, who don’t always or ever agree, actually celebrate the sacredness of sharing that relational space — suspecting that the vigilant maintenance of that communal commonwealth may well be more important than whatever it is that we say and hear there.

But we don’t seem to have the time or interest in that, determined instead to over-shout each other, exploit, ignore, use, abuse, disdain or simply shoot each other.

And it makes me want to cry.

But even that, I suppose, is ultimately hopeful.  As Leonard Cohen famously said, "There's a crack in everything.  That's how the light gets in."

Which means that whatever else we are doing with all our fracturing, we are making room for all kinds of light.  

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Long-running Past Into the Future

It was a brief gathering — a few hours that whirred by in a rattle of baby clangs and the chatter of adults. But it happened. We weren't all there — we lamented the relational gaps — but enough of us were present to call it good: four generations, convened in one place for food and visiting and the blessed grace of looking into each other's eyes while convened in the same room, around the same table. For once it wasn't an occasion. No one had died, there were no candles to blow out or graduations to proclaim; there was no holiday to celebrate. We all simply found ourselves proximate and seized the opportunity. 

We don't take such moments for granted; they happen seldom enough given our disparate zip codes — that, and no one can guess how many more chances we will get. Life is unpredictable that way — ultimately ephemeral, and no matter what our ultimate ages inevitably shorter than we'd wish. We see what we get to see, do what we get to do in the days of our pulsing, according to our choosing. And the choosing is key, I reflect to myself, given that we can neither see nor do it all. 

Whatever lies ahead, today we chose to be together, if only for that handful of hours — parents, child, grandchildren, partner and Great-grandchild. We remembered, we caught up, we laughed, we shared a meal, we inhabited the moment — physically this time, rather than telephonically — with our lives and ourselves. And while I'm grateful for the technology that blurs and bends the miles on a more frequent basis, there is something holy and blessed about bodies in one place, sitting close enough enough to feel the warmth of each other's skin and smell the varied colognes. 

The baby helps. Without voicing the reality of it, his crawling and reaching, fascinating and cooing reminds us of the birthings that prefigured this very gathering — of a husband and wife who became parents of babies who grew to become parents whose babies now give birth. Families as gestation and birth writ large and wide. 

While the rest of us were both buoyed by and freighted with memory, baby Truett has only a future into which he reflexively leans and beckons us. Willingly and sluggishly — nostalgically — we follow along. And somehow both the leaning backward and the leaning forward are satisfying; centering even. 

And so it was that we eventually went our separate ways — changed a bit despite the brevity of the moment. Swelled, perhaps, by the largeness — and the largess — of these precious days. 

However many of them we get.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Olive Branches of Multiple Varieties

 Day 14

We walked among the groves on this, our last full day in Spello — morning, and then again afternoon.  We had destinations in mind — a cemetery here, a shrine there — but mostly we felt this need to be out along the paths beyond the village, among the trees.

For centuries olive oil has been, beyond kitchen and the table, the enacted, anointing vocabulary of blessing — the liturgical lubricant of forgiveness, peace and hope.  I haven’t a credible explanation why.  Perhaps in the cultures that gave rise to the scriptures of Jews, Muslims and Christians, olives and their oil represent, by their ubiquity, all that which is foundational, basic and essential — the primal gift and ground of the Holy.  Perhaps it was used ceremonially just to remember our foundations and what is finally important.

Before, then, resuming our place in the routines of our lives; before returning to the hourly news reports of conflicts and threats, storms and terrorist assaults, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the surrounding olive branches, willing, by visceral experience, to take something of their blessing back home to our world in such desperate need of it.

It’s not that Spello is inured to such challenges. As a walled city, danger and threat and tumult are part of its DNA. As victim of two major earthquakes in the past 20 years, the very walls bear scars.  It’s shopkeepers carry the weight of economic downturns.  And it’s people — it’s families and neighbors — are not strangers to the usual abrasions of close social interaction.

But such challenges are muted, more peripheral threads in the overall tapestry of life.  They aren’t ignorant of world affairs, but neither are they glued to television channels continually drenched in their toxicity.  They interact with each other.  The animated and enlivening conversations with the personalities in front of
them are more precious than the swirling political vicissitudes around them.  They are largely pedestrian.  They walk home from work — journeys of a few blocks that may take an hour because they are filled with hellos and pauses for stories exchanged among friends. They are no stranger to the countryside or fresh air.  Connection with each other and their surroundings is daily routine, not special event.

Which is not to say there are not special events.

Which is how it turned out that the olive branches this day would come in more forms than wood.

We were invited to a party.  If there was an occasion, we weren’t aware of it.  It was, as far as we knew, simply a time for friends to be together.  There were the hosts — an Italian professor of the classics and his American artist/professor wife — along with various expats from around the US.  There were Spellani, like the community cultural director and his wife, two restauranteurs, a neighbor or two and also a poet who shared, as a spontaneous climax to the evening, her new publications.  And in the midst of it all there was made a place for us. Over the course of the evening there was discussion of books, of ideas and words and personal stories and creativity and imaginative stimulation.  There was encouragement and curiosity and affirmation.  There was food and thanksgiving and hellos and goodbyes.  In its own way— in lives shared, in Italian, broken but earnest English, and our own welcomed monolinguism — the entire room became an olive branch, heavy with anointing fruit.
“How good and pleasant it is when kindred live in unity!  It is like precious oil on the head...” (Psalm 133:1-2)
How good and pleasant — and hopeful, and enlivening — indeed.

We are mostly packed, and prepared for the journey home — functionally at least.  In truth, there will be parts of us that won’t fit in our bags that will necessarily remain behind in these homes, along these streets, and scattered among these olive groves; partly because there is so much of this place that will accompany us, profoundly enlarged and changed, home.

Perhaps we will find our way here again.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Grace of a Name and a Gentle Touch

Day 13

Claudio has a tender touch.

On each of the days we have stopped into Patricia's vegetable shop at the lower end of town, her husband Claudio — the silent, tall and lanky counterpart to her boisterous, short and stocky persona and frame — is puttering quietly around on the front porch, stacking crates, rearranging boxes; occasionally restocking a bin inside the store. Patricia holds forth from behind the counter, bantering, weighing, calculating and making change.

For the longest time we didn't even know his name. When we asked around town, people responded with a blank look, realizing that they didn't know his name either. Everybody knows Patricia. He, on the other hand, is something of a shadow around the edges only discernible with peripheral vision.

But the village grapevine finally bore fruit, and from friend to friend to friend to friend, the answer eventually made its way back to our query. "Claudio. His name is Claudio."

And so I have been calling him by name whenever we stop by the shop. "Buon giorno Claudio," I'd call out as we passed by on our way through the door. And he has smiled.

While in Assisi yesterday we stopped by a cheese shop and purchased an ovaline of fresh mozzarella with the thought of making a caprese salad today for lunch. Of course we needed a tomato, and knew that Patricia, who has very precise ideas about such things, would steer us wisely through the vast array of varietals to the best one for our needs.

All was as usual as we approached the store, except, for a change, we were the moment's only customer. Stepping up to the porch and making our way toward the door, I hesitated a moment for the obligatory greeting.

"Buon giorno, Claudio," I said before continuing on my way. And that's when I felt his hand. As gentle as my father's touch, Claudio patted my shoulder as I passed, and quietly but earnestly responded in kind. "Buon giorno."

That was all. It's not like the clouds parted or the birds began to sing. It's not like we exchanged addresses to be added to each other's Christmas card list. And it's entirely possible that I read more into that simple gesture than he intended. But I believe there was something special about that tender touch and those quiet words spoken. It was an acknowledgment of being noticed — a recognition of being recognized. By name.

Once inside and true to form, Patricia volubly took charge, steering us to the correct tomato. We counted out our change and headed back outside where Claudio was puttering with his crates.

We smiled as we waved for what was likely the last time. And my smile lingered; perhaps his, too — mine at the joy of fitting in; his at the knowledge of being known.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Pulled Between Mixed Messages

Day 12

Assisi. I'll just confess to some dissonance here. We visited there today — an ancient walled, mountain city a short taxi ride from Spello. It is a beautiful town — fingering its way up and around the hillside; majestically overlooking the valley below and the panoramic view all around. It is a place of heft and depth — an ancient city that wears its heritage like the precious garment that it is. It is a place of magnificent remembrance — the breathtakingly simple surrounded by the breathtakingly opulent and grand. It is the home of Francis, poster child of concern for the earth and all that dwells therein — the sun, the moon, the smallest animal to the fiercest predator, lovingly embraced and affirmed as an integral part of God's grand design; Francis, the devotè of the poor and the weak and the small — venerated here by the grand, the gold, the immense, and the ostentatious.

Therein lies the rub. The city and its edifices are beautiful. The arches, the frescoes, the gold leaf and the ornamentation. Artistically, they are inspiring, monumental, awe-filling and staggering. It is all, in a word, moving. And I believe that Francis — the focus of it all; Francis, the advocate for the small, the poor, the "least of these" that God views as precious — must be rolling over in his venerated grave.

In short, I think he would be appalled at what's been made of and spent on his legacy.

He who stripped naked in the public square in solidarity with the poor.

He who threw money — and his clothes — at his parents in repudiation of their capitalist values.

He who gave away all he had and lived in poverty, berating the rich and challenging his Pope on behalf of those with nothing.

One of our guide books called attention to a particular fresco high on the ceiling above the altar in the Basilica's lower nave. It depicts a risen Francis, ensconced in heaven, seated on a throne and clothed in a rich, golden robe — the celestial reward for an earthly life of obedience, chastity, and poverty. The suggestion seems to be that in heaven he received all the luxuries he had forsaken on earth — the ultimate delay of gratification; heaven as the religious version of the appliance salesman's fantasy about being a rock star in that old Dire Straits song, where you get "your money for nothing and your chicks for free."

But I rather suspect that Francis would be puzzled by the notion that he had sacrificed anything in his embrace of simplicity; rather, that he had simply chosen the life that God desires.

All of which is to say that I'm conflicted. I loved it. It is beautiful. I was moved by it — indeed I was inspired by it. And I was appalled by it, all at the same time.

And I am relatively certain that as long as there is a hungry person begging on the street (as we encountered from time to time); as long as there is a homeless person sleeping in the shadows; as long as there is a disenfranchised person begging to be heard; as long as there is an animal endangered or a landscape brutalized or clearcut...

...Francis wouldn't darken the door of any of these shrines erected in his honor. He would have more important work to do. At least admission is free, even if it does cost .50-euros to use the bathroom.

It was, then, an awfully wonderful day, and one that will helpfully trouble me for some time to come.

In the meantime, I'll pray with him:

O most high and glorious God,
Enlighten the darkness of my heart.
Give me right faith,
Certain hope,
Perfect love
And deep humility.
O Lord, give me sense and discernment
In order to carry out your true and holy will. Amen.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Toward A Lighter, More Encouraging Touch

Day 11, part B

The DiFilippo Winery, a half-hour drive from Spello, is a long way from the high-gloss, high-tech wineries of Napa…or elsewhere in Umbria for that matter. In fact, the driver who delivered us there never stopped shaking his head at our preference for visiting there, muttering repeatedly that there are better winery destinations. DiFilippo is, indeed, a little off the beaten path, and there are certainly more polished, customer-friendly operations. But there are relational ties to friends in Spello, and such connections carry weight. Additionally, their 35 hectares of calcareous clay soil and the vines they support are certified organic; plus, they employ the bio-dynamic practices advocated by Rudolph Steiner almost a hundred years ago that align human behaviors and interventions in the vineyards with the systems and principles of nature.

That explains the horses, and the geese.

All of the cultivation is accomplished with draught horses — towering animals, exactingly trained — to avoid the soil compaction that tractors would leave behind, strangling the roots and starving the vines. And let’s face it, while the grapes get all the press, it’s ultimately all about the roots. Beyond their lighter touch, the horse hooves massage the soil, according to our host, stirring and stimulating the ground while leaving the roots ample freedom and encouragement to grow and deepen and nourish.

As for that nourishment, the vineyard workers spread compost, but they also receive additional support.

That explains the geese.

Three-hundred geese call the vineyard home. They patrol the paths between the rows, eating bugs and weeds while depositing nutrient-rich manure. The geese only become detrimental to the grapes once the fruit begins to ripen, at which time they are herded into paddocks beyond the vines, and ultimately butchered for cured meat.

I was struck by the paradoxical contrasts between the olive oil processing plant we visited in the morning and the winery we visited in the afternoon. The former is entirely modern, while the latter might even be deemed primitive. In both cases, however, their methods are in service to a lighter, more encouraging touch. Both — one with sophisticated technology and the other with horses and geese — eschew the heavy-handed methods of coercion and compaction in favor of evocation; they simply arrive at that shared priority from opposite directions.

Which is interesting, and instructive. And, for people like me with a penchant for believing there to be a single “right path” for reaching a single “desired end”, humbling…

…and cautionary.

Cheers, then, to the horse, the goose, the centrifuge and the artisans of oil and wine and civil life discerning enough to partner with them.