Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Sanity of a Longer Walk

"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
Albert Einstein

I'm not sure how long the impasse continued. I eventually backed out and looked for another parking ramp deeper into the complex. The problem a few cars ahead of me was that the barricading arm at the entrance would not lift to permit entry. The driver in the car at the entrance vigilantly pressed the green button but no ticket was printed and the arm refused to lift.

The reason, of course, was reflected on two neon signs -- one beside and one above the entrance: "FULL." But whether so obvious of simply untenable, we paid the signs no attention.

"Never mind," the lead car seemed to say; "I would prefer to come on in and drive around, level by level, and see for myself."

Or, so accustomed to driving up, pressing the button, and driving on in, perhaps the driver looked right through the signs without registering their courteous rebuff.

Insanity, either way. Mindless repetition, that in this case built a trap: she couldn't go forward, and now, because of the line of cars accumulated behind her, she couldn't back up. So, she just kept pushing the button.

Finally comprehending the conundrum myself, I put my car in reverse, partly to alleviate the blockage, but also, as my personal attack on insanity, to attempt something different; try a different course.

In short order, and a little further down the road, I was parked and making my way. It is a beautiful autumn day, it turns out -- a fact my shorter walks had obscured -- and I caught a falling leaf on a floating breeze. The sun is bright and, after driving, the stretching stretching walk felt good.

Passing by the original parking ramp entrance, I notice the driveway now clear of cars. Hopefully the cars ahead of me had themselves found a place far enough away to notice the sun, to catch a leaf of their own, and, perchance, a new grip on their own sanity.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Different View of Moderation

mod·er·a·tor /ˈmɒdəˌreɪtər/ [mod-uh-rey-ter]



a person or thing that moderates.


a person who presides over a panel discussion on radio or television.


a presiding officer, as at a public forum, a legislative body, or an ecclesiastical body in the Presbyterian Church.


Physics. a substance, as graphite or heavy water, used to slow neutrons to speeds at which they are more efficient in causing fission.

"moderator." Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 16 Oct. 2008. <

Last Saturday I was elected Moderator of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Upper Midwest – a denominational sub-group geographically including 157 churches scattered around Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, although in response to one of the business items approved during the Assembly that number could be reduced by ecclesiastical divorce. How shall I say it? Not everyone approved. That said, we were a kindly lot; disagreeing, but disagreeing agreeably. I might like to point out that the vote on the election of a new Moderator was unanimous, but I am fully aware that most people voted "yes" to my nomination out of fear that if disapproved, the Nominating Committee might next come knocking on their door.

So, what am I? Of the available definitions, I rather like the fourth one. The prospect of slowing neutrons to speeds at which they efficiently cause fission somehow appeals to me, although I'm not sure what the implications of such fission might be in the church. Whatever, it's hard to imagine it doing any more damage than other dubious actions routinely undertaken in the spirit of good Christian love.

Of the remaining definitional options, the most unappealing to me is the first. Aristotle might be confident that "moderation in all things" is a virtue, but that can go too far. And while Oscar Wilde may, himself, have gone too far in asserting that, "Moderation is a fatal thing; nothing succeeds like excess," Thomas Paine might get nearer the truth when he observes that, "Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice."

The church, it seems to me, has historically had difficulty discerning the right things to moderate, and the right areas in which to cause fission. While there is nothing intrinsically noble about blowing things up, neither is it always the faithful, let alone salvific, course to merely try and "keep the lid on." I have no reason to believe that as Moderator I will fare any better, but it is worth considering the possibilities – for both shaking things up, and holding things together.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Simmering and Savoring the Soul of Vacation

Unpacked, if not entirely put away; rid, with a shower, of the coating film from airports and busses and the scent of travel; and a few groceries restored to the pantry, we are beginning to unfold into home.  There were a few telephone calls to make, Barrington to pick up, dinner to prepare (a salad recipe we brought home from Italy), one camera disk of pictures to enjoy, and then, we could delay it no longer, sleep.  

Saturday had begun with an alarm in Montefollonico, followed by a taxi ride to Chiusi, followed by a train trip to Florence, followed by a cab ride from the train station to the airport, followed by a flight to Amsterdam, followed by a shuttle bus ride to the hotel, followed by dinner and a little sleep.  Yesterday (actually, Saturday night, Des Moines time) began with an early alarm, a shuttle bus ride back to the airport, re-checking luggage, a long flight to Detroit, Customs, re-checking luggage, a shorter flight to Des Moines, and home.  

And now the next morning, earlier than I had intended to wake, I am only beginning to negotiate the transition.  Already I hear the demands of ordinary life scratching at the doors and windows of my consciousness, though we won't actually open those doors until tomorrow.  But I'm not at all ready to put away the suitcases and allow the vacation to end.  My mental context -- as well as my body clock -- is still Italian.  Somewhere inside I'm still cloistered within those medieval walls, walking those brick paved roads, hypnotized by the rolling hillsides, and awed by the rows of hanging fruit.  Still I am responding "Grazie" to niceties tendered and greeting strangers with "Buon giorno" and "bueno sera." My system, two weeks surrounded by enchantment and nourished by discovery and blessedly stretched by the unfamiliar, is still set for absorbing and drinking in; it hardly feels capable of pouring out again at work.  

But my sense is that vacation is less about escape, and more about the creation of protected space in which to allow basic, holy practices and values -- sedimented by the routine of every day -- to re-emerge.  Things like rest; like curiosity; like paying naive attention to one's surroundings ; like listening to unfamiliar voices and noticing unfamiliar practices; like learning something new and being vulnerable to the strange; like playing and laughing and intentionally putting oneself in the company of different people, and not needing to be correct -- all of which can just as well happen here as there.

The task, then, is not to close the book on this vacation and go back to work until the next one; it isn't to turn off the stove of these past two weeks and put away the pans, but rather to savor, and simmer, and gradually season whatever is fresh, whatever is available, whatever is endemic to the immediate environment, allowing the soul of vacation to enliven the forms of routine.  


Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Kitchen Debate and What Finally Matters

The greenscape of the valley floor sweeping below is just emerging from the last of the pre-dawn haze, and the sun peeking over the hilltop in the far ground silhouettes the points of the cypress trees in the forground. A rooster crows somewhere in the countryside, and the village church bell strikes the half-hour. The sheep, usually grazing beneath the trees in the afternoon sun, have apparently found bedding in another pasture through the night. Montepulciano crowns the hill across the way. It's early morning in Tuscany -- the opening of our last full day. I haven't been getting up this early, but this morning the balcony lured me.

I am grateful. This is a tiny area, but like all of Italy, it's size is in it's depth rather than it's width. Customs are generations practiced; the small family winery we visited yesterday just up the street was built in the 14th century and the family operating it goes back with it almost that far. What the soil here may lack in nutrients it more than makes up for in wisdom and experience and character and story.

Yesterday we were party to an animated debate. It had nothing to do with foreign policy or the economy, and its contenders were not candidates for political office. It was between two Italian women gesturing broadly and arguing above a stove-ful of simmering pots over whether the squash blossoms in their sauce were getting too dried out and needed more water. We asked the translator what they were saying, but she smiled and prudently demurred. Two women -- one in her 50's and the other in her 80's -- who have been cooking together for countless lifetimes -- at odds over something that matters: not so much the character of the sauce itself, but rather the integrity and reputation of the women. They knew full well that whatever else eventually came out of that kitchen, they would in reality be served on those plates, which meant that they had something precious at stake. It was undoubtedly the most beautiful argument I've ever seen -- and the most substantive debate.

I've witnessed and experienced and learned much else during these Tuscan days -- that some things can't be rushed, that some things need to be measured and some things don't, that some things finally are more important than others and wisdom and beautiful living are about spending time and energy and attention on what endures -- but I will ponder those lessons later. My last day in Tuscany is beginning and I want to pay attention

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Playing in the Dough

So, what have we been up to? Well, making pasta to understate the obvious -- pici, tagliatelli, ravioli, gnocci, farfalle, to name a few. A few other things as well -- stuffed squash blossoms, herbed duck, a sauce here and there. And of course we have eaten far too much and exercised too little.

And we have met some enchanting women who have demonstrated and shared the cooking habits they learned from their mothers who learned them from their mothers who learned them...

But mostly we have consumed the context -- the medieval gates, the Etruscan walls, the olive trees, the tidy and tied vineyards gridding the slopes, and the views; the panoramas; the quilted landscapes. And we have inhaled -- deeply -- with gratitude and awe.

And, let's be honest, a little bit of envy.

Today there is no kitchen -- just Florence. The bus ride is wearisome, but for Florence, no complaints. All that leather, all that gold and silk and gelato and art --

--in no particular order. Which is to play in "dough" of a very different kind.