Thursday, October 19, 2017

Oiling the Way to a Better Result

Day 11, Part 1

The olive oil co-op in Spello — “Frantoio di Spello” — nestles in the valley a casual walk beyond the walls of the village. Founded in 1947 by local olive growers in the midst of significant post-war social and economic challenges to exercise greater control over the processing of their fruit and the resulting oil, the co-op has grown and modernized into today’s award winning enterprise.

The tour for our foursome included a beautiful introductory video, and then a curated walk among the equipment, following the path of the fruit from entrance in the large plastic crates, through the destemmer and washer, up augers and along conveyers, into the grinder and ultimately into the centrifuge.

A centrifuge. Once upon a time, our guide noted, the oil was extracted by pressing — by squeezing the pomace with enough force that the oil was literally wrung out of it. The operators have discovered that a better oil is produced using centrifugal force — separating the solid matter from the precious oil by outward motion rather than downward compression.

The tour continued on — through the subsequent steps of filtration, storage in the large, temperature controlled stainless steel tanks, and ultimately bottling for sale. And, yes, we got to taste…and ultimately purchase…that final result. 

But my imagination lingered behind, around that centrifuge and its science of evocation — spinning off rather than crushing out. And I thought of all the myriad ways I wish that insight and methodology would be employed in other arenas of life — in the conduct of religion, in the school system’s development of minds, in personnel management and corporate climate…

…in international diplomacy, in economic expansion and development…

…in moral and political discourse.

The olive growers around Spello have recognized that brute force is an archaic methodology and results in an inferior product. The better oil is evoked; not squeezed. Would that the rest of us could take their lead; abandoning our own archaic reliance on sheer weight and pressure and “shock and awe” domination…

…in pursuit of a better product.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

When Dinner is More Than Food

Day 10

Tonight was our night to host. Our friends have been so gracious and extraordinarily generous that we were anxious to offer some hospitality as well. There is, in scripture the admonishment to “show hospitality to strangers because you might be entertaining angels unawares.” We were none so ambiguous. We had not known them well before this visit, but upon arriving here a little over a week ago it did not take long to perceive their wings. They have been for us angels extraordinaire.

And so we planned this evening. We considered our limited kitchen and what might be reasonably workable.

First thing this morning we set out to gather supplies. We made a run to Patricia’s vegetable shop for this and that.

We stopped by Giovanna’s bakery for fresh bread.

We struck out along the byways to forage for rosemary, oregano and bay. We stopped by the market to pick up sausage, and the specialty shop for pasta. And late afternoon, we set to work.

And it all turned out fine. But here is the thing: it wasn’t about the food. Sure, we ate — we enjoyed our way through the courses — but the nourishment of the evening had far more to do with the conversation, the reflections, the music and the dancing than about the food.

Which is, when it’s right, always the case.

We lamented global affairs. We pondered matters of the heart. We imagined something better. We toasted the glimpses of “better” already encouraging us on. We listened to stories, and told our own. And we did our best to pay attention…to each other…to here…to now, recognizing that there remains yet much that we are too deaf and blind to see, resolving to continue clearing and sharpening our eyes and ears for the blessed privilege of living.

And we wondered how still to make a difference — even now in a world where gunmen massacre concert goers, where hurricane victims wait weeks for food and water and power, where politicians turn deaf ears and religious figures spout nonsensical absurdities that bastardize the gospel and ignore “the least of these.”

Because “even now” this world matters, despite our lover’s quarrel with it. Because “even now” our frustration and aggravation and lament are b
orn of our prayerful ache for better.

And we got to share the longing together — as the real “main course” of our dinner together. Here in Spello, in this small and somewhat remote village that intuitively and routinely seems to understand and welcome strangers and residents alike into a better way.

Tomorrow we will go and do other things. Tonight, though, as the streetlights popped on and the traffic slowed, we gave ourselves up to the spirit of Spello: laughing, sharing, knowing, lamenting, hoping, and entrusting ourselves to the care of each other.

All that, and then we had dessert.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

On Getting Lost and Then Found

Day 9

Lori fell today. That was neither the high nor the low point, but it was a particularly memorable part.

We had caught the morning train to Perugia, the capital city of Umbria, a half-hour or so away. It is, by local standards, a big city with a large Cathedral, a spectacular art museum, a university, and all the hubbub one can expect in an urban center. Plus, it’s famous for chocolate, so of course we went.

The day started out with challenges. The ticket machine at the Spello station wasn’t working, so the conductor calmed us by selling them to us onboard. We almost got off the train at the wrong stop, but were saved from travel purgatory by a benevolent stranger who simply asserted, “next one.” Once emptied into the correct train station, we caught the bus to the central piazza, tracked down an ATM to refuel our wallets, but kept getting error messages. We walked, mostly around wrong turns, but ultimately visited the essentials we had intended.

Those, after a delightful pastry and coffee at a sidewalk cafe, which preceded by several hours a perfect lunch at a perfect osteria on which we had all but given up, located as it was at the center of a maze of tiny streets that confused even Google maps. But it was worth our persistence. And we hated to leave. But we still had chocolate on our mind — oh, and yes the master works in the National Gallery; oh, and cash.

And so it went. We were most successful in our gastronomic pursuits — breakfast, lunch and dessert. We were, with no small measure of relief, ultimately successful at a Bancomat, and we navigated our way to the central piazza to buy a bus ticket back to the train station. Handing over our 3-euros, we asked which bus to watch for and the attendant pointed across the way and said, “That one.”

Yes, the one getting ready to leave.

We hurried, we boarded, we grabbed the poles in the absence of seats and braced for the ride down the winding streets. And let me here just abbreviate a saga we came to fear would have no end. We missed our stop. In our defense I’ll just insert that wherever that stop might have been it bore no resemblance to where we had boarded the bus several hours earlier. The next thing we know we are passing signs that pointed the opposite way to Perugia. I think we crossed the Alps and were well on our way to Russia, for all we knew, before Lori asked the driver about the fading hopes of ever seeing the train station again. He replied with a time, almost an hour away, when there might possibly be a train sighting. At least there was hope.

Eventually, near the predicted hour, the bus came to a stop, the doors opened, and the driver gave us — who by this time were huddling near the front of the bus readying for any escape — a nod. We spilled through the door, the bus pulled away, we looked around and still saw nothing that looked familiar. We started hurrying, urgent to catch the next train, but in the wrong direction. We studied our environs, found a suggestive sign and started hurtling in that direction.

And that’s when it happened. Lori’s foot caught an uneven brick, and in our weary, frazzled and disoriented state, she clattered to the ground scattering jacket, guide book, papers and miscellany. I reached for her and the scattered debris simultaneously, but faster than me — and virtually out of nowhere — two Italian women appeared in voluble sympathy. One on either side helped Lori to her feet and helped reconnoiter any possible damages. We were all relieved that nothing was broken, never mind a few bruises, scratches and strains. But a wail went up from our Good Samaritans when they saw the tear in the knee of Lori’s pants. They were almost inconsolable.

But we had a train to catch. We thanked them profusely, confirmed with them our course, and hurried away. And made our train. And safely and without further incident reached our apartment and called it a day — one of lostness, and ultimately one of foundness thanks to the kind ministrations of strangers.

As good as the food was, it will get digested. But I suspect we will never quite finish chewing on the grace of those two strangers, their spontaneous willingness to respond, and their sincere concern.

I wouldn’t be surprised if they are still there on that sidewalk, lamenting the tear in those pants. They simply cared that much.

That, when all the dust is settled, will be our memory of Perugia.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Rediscovering Prayer as a First Act

Day 8

It was Worldwide Communion Sunday, so it’s only right that we attended worship this morning in another part of the world — except for the fact that we weren’t included in communion. We took our places in one of the pews of the Church of St. Laurence — San Lorenzo — here in Spello. I found myself having the same experience that members of my congregations have had throughout my ministry: I didn’t have a clue what the priest was saying. Never mind; the visceral participation made up for our lack of a cognizant one. We “felt” what was transpiring even if we couldn’t translate it. The choir sang, the organ played, the congregation rose and sat, recited and responded. And we passed the peace. We understood enough just by the conduct of it all and the augmenting beauty of the church and the warmth of the liturgy that we truly felt like we had worshipped.

Plus, we had help. Our friends whispered condensed translations along the way.

Later this week, unbeknownst to us until this morning, is the Feast of St. Francis. Here, just a few miles from Francis’ home in Assisi, there is a Franciscan monastery at the top of the hill. The Priest from that community was the guest Celebrant, leading the service with fervor, warmth, and grace; presiding over the Eucharist, and preaching. It was truly and movingly beautiful. He spoke engagingly about the twin priorities of prayerful action — a faithful movement in precisely that order. Not, he clarified, our usual knee-jerking propensity for reacting, but rather praying, first, and then acting. Prayer first, followed by purposeful movement.

It took me back to our wedding 20 years ago last week which we are here, in part, celebrating. Convened in the beautiful garden of friends, accompanied by flute and harp, my father called us to worship, led us in a reflection on the character of love, and walked us responsively through our vows and exchange of rings. We reached a point, however, when Lori worried we had gotten off-track. “Isn’t this the time for the kiss?” she whisperingly inquired of my Dad.

“Not yet,” he gently responded. “First we are going to pray.”

The Franciscan this morning would, I believe, concur. Regardless of the question, the answer is, “First we are going to pray.”

There is a patience in that wisdom; a willingness — or at least a determination — to wait for clarity and discernment and divine wisdom. Action is less important than wisdom which rarely if ever comes instantaneously. There is, as was manifest in the Priest’s own bearing, a humility that does not presume.

Unfortunately we were, before the benediction, presented with its antithesis. As the beautiful service drew to a graceful conclusion, the host Priest, who had spent the better part of the service walking obtrusively from one side of the sanctuary to the other — this, after arriving conspicuously late — interrupted the flow and inserted himself into the moment. He made what appeared to be a series of announcements and then continued on — quite pompously we thought — with his own impromptu homily seemingly intended to eliminate any doubt as to who was really in charge. The liturgical strong-arming completely sucked the air and any vitality out of the room; garishly hijacking the spotlight and derailing the spirit of the message and the moment. It was an appalling abrogation.  I'm sure he is a nice guy and a faithful pastor to his people, but this was not his finest hour.  He should have listened more attentively to the Franciscan.

Later, back on the street outside the church, we opted to purge the interruptive stain, cleanse the polluting power play, and hold to ourselves the guest’s more generous message and example: patiently, humbly pray, and by the prayer’s clarifying nudge — and only then — act.

On this Worldwide Communion Sunday we may have been denied the literal loaf and cup, but in every other way we communed.

We pray that we take that wise direction to heart.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Day of Extravagant Morsels

Day 7

I suppose it would be accurate to say that each of the days we have been in Italy has been about food — the flaky pastries we have found for breakfast at one of the cafes along the street (occasionally with marmalade), the sidewalk lunches and dinners. But today, this one week anniversary of our arrival in Spello, has truly been about eating. Yesterday we stopped at the market and purchased eggs (organic ones of course, unwashed and stacked on the shelf). This morning, after setting out the trash, we strolled to the tiny neighborhood bakery we have come to love and bought some bread — half a baguette we asked the proprietress to slice, along with a muffin that looked intriguing — and returned to our kitchen to whip up a breakfast.

As has become our fond practice since the experience of our last trip to Italy in 2008, we surveyed our options: onions, garlic and various dried pastas on the table; the eggs; and in the refrigerator the remnants of a yellow pepper and some spinach from a previous day’s pass through the vegetable market down the street below us. The solution was, of course, obvious: a frittata! We boiled the pasta, we chopped the vegetables and fork-beat the eggs and combined the happy assortment in a skillet. It wasn’t long before we were sitting at the table, smiling over the eggy morsels dancing on our taste buds, spreading chestnut marmalade over the morning’s fresh baguette. Bravissimo!

One meal, however, only anticipates and clears the way for the next. Since the vegetable market will be closed on Sunday, after the breakfast dishes were washed and put away we strolled down the street and browsed the options for our upcoming days, filling our hand basket as we went — potatoes, onions, another yellow pepper, tomatoes, a cucumber, a beautiful romanesco, and cannellini beans — for which we carefully counted out the change into the hands of the jovial shopkeeper, Patricia. Emptying the sack back at the apartment we discovered parsley and celery she had surreptitiously slipped in as an “extra.” Grazie mille!

After a quick walking circuit up the street and back, we freshened up and waited. Lunch was supposed to be a gift — a tangible gratitude for our host whose apartment we have rented, but whose graciousness has extended infinitely beyond the provision of four walls and a bed — but as with so many aspects of our time here the outing felt less like a gift given and moreso a gift received. Simona drove us — along with her dog, Gilda, who was joining us for lunch — to another mountain town perhaps 20 minutes away, Trevi. Outdoors, along the banks of a mountain stream, we ate freshly caught trout — 3 ways: cooked with pasta, marinated in a salad, and roasted whole with a sprig of rosemary surprisingly found in its belly. Three courses and four hours after departing, we returned to our apartment over-sated, with dear memories and a few dog hairs as souvenirs…
…only to anticipate dinner with two other couples at an iconic restaurant in Spello. Breads, pasta two ways, four grilled meats (sausage, pork, beef and lamb) mixed vegetables and a taste of dessert, but the best part was what tables do best: facilitate amiable and animated conversation, never mind that more than half of it was in a tongue that we do not speak.

It’s night now — past our bedtime — but we are full in ways too numerous to count.

And though it seems a shame to turn off the light, the smiles will keep on glowing.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Art and Glow of Shared Limelight


There were a few runners out on the street as we made our way toward the train station at the necessary pre-dawn hour. The lights of a lone cafe invited early risers in for a pastry and cappuccino, but we couldn’t stop. We aren’t that secure yet navigating train schedules and departure platforms, and resolved to be at the station early. One week in, this would be our first day excursion beyond the environs of Spello. We were Orvieto bound.

Of course the trains were on time. That’s simply the way they function here. We successfully navigated our transfer at Orte and arrived in Orvieto a little before 9 am.

We weren’t alone. The funiculare at the bottom of the hill was already full when we wedged our way onboard for the short ascent up the hill to the city center. Spilling out with the crowd in the Piazza del Duomo we joined an even bigger crowd of tourists, each managing to stop multiple times in front of us to extend her or his selfie stick to take another gratuitous shot. We joined the sweeping throng, paused to avail ourselves of that earlier sacrificed cappuccino and pastry, and made a preliminary circuit around town until the churches and museums opened mid-morning.

The day progressed as the guide book recommended, with historic sights, international sounds, artistic expression, and local flavors. And it was delightful for all that.

But two faces stay with me. In a side chapel of the Duomo, called The Chapel of San Brizio, the ceiling and walls are covered with frescoes by Fra Angelico and Luca Signorelli whom Michelangelo would later claim as an inspiration and example. The art depicts, among other things, the influence of the Antichrist, the condemnation of the lost, the resurrection of the dead, the torment of the damned and the entrance of the saved into heaven. Cumulatively engaged, it is a near-overwhelming masterpiece. Though Fra Angelico began the work, he was only able to complete the celestial scene immediately behind and above the altar. Decades later, employing a manifestly more evolved style, Signorelli resumed and ultimately completed the project.

In the bottom corner of one of the panels, two figures are painted, standing unobtrusively together, seemingly observing the depicted events. One is a self-portrait of Signorelli; the other is Fra Angelico. Though inserted self-portraits are common enough, I’m taken by this particular fraternal inclusion. Signorelli didn’t have to include his predecessor. He, after all, had completed the vast majority of the work. In fact, a smaller man might have painted over the small inheritance and started over to claim the entirety for himself. That he didn’t is a magnanimity of spirit. That he included Fra Angelico in the embodied signature is true generosity of heart. There they are, the two of them: side by side, partners, co-workers in a project larger than either one.

I’m moved by that — even more than the grandeur of the art and the theological substance of the depiction.

Indeed, that very magnanimity and generosity might very well be what that theology depicted is ultimately about.


There is, indeed, an art to that.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Dipping a Toe into Roman Waters

Day 5

We hiked along the Roman aqueduct.  

That, alone, requires some contemplative/comprehending pause.  We are talking about the Romans — single digits of the Common Era.  4th century, perhaps.  And it is an engineering marvel, this enclosed trench that brought fresh water from the head waters of the mountain stream down to the village below.  It is a transport that involves multiple miles, maintaining a constant velocity across varying elevations, requiring arches in places, bridges in others, and general attention to mountain gradients.  

All at a time long before John Deere, Caterpillar, and modern surveying instruments.  And it functioned up until a hundred years ago.   I think, by comparison, how many times in the past six years I’ve replaced the gasket in the end of my hose.  And the hose itself, for that matter.

And so we walked this way, up and around the mountain, tracking the aqueduct which was sometimes the wall beside us and sometimes the path beneath us; through the olive groves, higher and higher, pausing to absorb the panoramas and views and, I’ll admit it, to sip from our water bottles and to catch our breath.  Along the path, stone plaques had been affixed to the aqueduct wall engraved with quotes in Italian by various thinkers.  “Live as if you were to die tomorrow.  Learn as if you were to live forever,” encouraged one from Gandhi.  We smiled in agreement and assent.

The trail leveled and then climbed, around the hillside and over a gorge and ultimately rose on the rocky equivalent of ball-bearings over which we picked our way until we reached the end of the trail and the village beyond — Collepino, “little pine.”  We explored the immaculate town, then settled around the outdoor table of the bar that provided our lunch:  cheese, cured meats, bruschetta of 3 varieties, chased by an apricot pastry made that morning by the wife of the bar keeper.  

Sighing with one more glorious look around, we started our descent.  And all the way back to Spello — easier, at times, downhill; at other times harder — we picked wild asparagus, fennel and arugula for dinner, and marveled at the wild mountain fragrance perfumed by wild rosemary, oregano, onion, and mint.    

Here, amidst the joyful abundance, we walked and talked and paused to absorb the view; 

...believing it almost sacrilegious to allow ourselves to be short of breath.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Finding Spaces Through the Walls

The neighbor in Robert Frost’s poem proverbially remarked that “good walls make good neighbors.”  But Frost never quite seems to buy it, musing that nature seems to have a contrary opinion.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,And spills the upper boulders in the sun;And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.”
Walls, in other words, have a way of coming down.  And though the neighbor in the poem resists it and religiously repairs the breeches, I am grateful for the gaps — especially those that are filled with doors that are hospitably opened.

Spello is a walled mountain village. Looked at — strolled through — from a certain perspective it has the feel of a fortress, which in a sense it was in the days when the Romans built the aqueduct to supply it with water, in the days when rivalries and conflicts were more fisted.  Spello was built for precaution.  The walls could be retreated behind.  The gates could be closed and locked.  

The threats have changed over the centuries, but Spello’s walls remain — its citizens adopting, perhaps, Frost’s neighbor’s side of the argument that good walls make good neighbors.

But if those gates and doors can close they can just as easily open, as happened yesterday — not by earthquake but through the agency of generosity.  

We had been to the market in the lower piazza — that weekly congregation of tents, trucks and townsfolk displaying pots and plants and underwear, dresses and shoes —  and were strolling back up the main road, passing one of the shopkeepers standing in her doorway.  Our friends introduced us — the wondrous alchemy of friends introduced to friends by friends — and we spoke of gardens; ours back home, the ones we were planning to see around the village.  And she insisted that we stop by and see her own.  “Ciao” we all exclaimed and we continued on our way, depositing our bags in our respective residences before continuing our exploration.  

Picking up our walk, we meandered along one sideway then another, before turning into still another until stopping near an iron gate in the stone wall that opened into a spacious but largely hidden garden.  We turned toward a woman’s cheerful greeting — our shopkeeper friend — who led us through the gate and in among the flowers, the vegetables and the chickens.  It was beautiful, and largely invisible to a passerby.  

Completing the tour, our host invited us inside her home to see her husband’s work.  Crossing in through a doorway cut into the opposite wall, we entered a room completely filled with a miniature village — handmade houses with tiny furniture and Lilliputian  dishes and inhabitants, fields with vegetables and animals; a complete and expansive Italian village and countryside culminating in a nativity scene all intricately carved from stone and fashioned from plaster.  

It was stunning — a masterpiece of minute detail and whimsically exacting imagination.  And then we were invited into their living space above — ostensibly to see more of his artistic creations, but almost certainly to feel welcomed into the intimacy of their space.  The art was masterful, but the hospitality within these stone walls was overwhelming.  
We descended the steps to the sunlit via outside, voicing our “mille grazies” and “buona sera’s”, and continued on our way; mostly silent for awhile, each of us reflecting on what we had seen and the privilege we felt at being invited behind the walls to see it.  

“Imagine what other wonders are kept silently behind these walls,” we pondered with a mix of awe and reverence, humility and gratitude.  

“Good walls make good neighbors,” insisted Frost’s own neighbor; and while I suppose there could be some truth to that I don’t subscribe to the belief.  What I can say with conviction, however, is that whatever the value of the walls, real friends know the passages through them...

...and use them.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Lunch, Olives, and Peace on Earth

Day 3

We gathered with ex-pats of one degree or another — a dozen or so adventurous souls from the U.S. and Australia who have transplanted their endemic roots to this ancient village. This is a swing time for the English speaking fellowship within this Italian village.  Some have just returned to Spello after a season away; others are preparing to leave for a time.  The luncheon was a chance to convene in the brief overlap.  Few of the group had visited this new oileria which had opened during the summer, and so was met this happy constellation of benefits — fellowship, culinaria, and support of a new local business.  

A single long, wood-plank table dominated the space.  After greetings and introductions we took our seats and the festivities began.  The proprietor introduced us to different varieties of olives from different regions, in different degrees of ripeness, moving on to the oils derived from them.  We sampled them on breads, moved on to vegetables — potatoes, cabbage, shaved fennel, zucchini— and ultimately hand-crafted pasta, with a post-scripting dessert conspicuously devoid of olive.  

In the course of our experience, a couple on the sidewalk outside paused at the door to inquire about lunch.  Virginians themselves, the two were visiting Spello for the day and, as it turned out, there were two empty places at the table.  They gratefully but hesitantly took their seats, and before long their English happily merged with our own.  They were a few courses behind the rest of us, but never mind; we weren’t in a hurry and our host could juggle the sequencing.  The food and the mountain, the commonalities and conviviality quickly enfolded us.  Strangers dissolved into friends.

What is the enzyme that enables such bonding to occur?  Is it the rarified air of mountainous antiquity or simply the common cause of meeting on foreign soil?  Is it the truncated nature of our acquaintance — a clean start devoid of the trailing stories, entanglements, misjudgments that often stain our presentiments and hobble our interactions?  Is it the stage of life that delivers us happily beyond our former competitions?  Is it the food or the wine or a shared exploratory curiosity?  Is it the possible but unlikely providence of a congregation of disparate individuals who simply “click”? 

All of these or some combination or some factor altogether different?

I haven’t a clue.  I only know that in the company of occasional neighbors, recent arrivals and total strangers it was present around that table.  Lives effortlessly mingled.  A different kind of oxygen filled the lungs of our soul.  Smiles flickered like holiday lights.  And hours passed.  The church bells above the piazza rang four o’clock as we pushed our chairs away from the table and bid each other farewell until who knows when.  

And I know how much I wish I could distill it, cultivate it and disseminate it freely like open-pollinated seeds.  

Because the world could use more of this kind of fruit...

...and the olive branches from which it grows.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

On Being, Rather Than Merely Appearing

 “There is kindness wherever there is virtue...
Just as there is the sky wherever there is the star.”

—- Dante (from Convivio)

Day 2

There is, we have found in Spello, a ready sense of belonging.  It manifests in the stories of tourists who visited once and took up residence, along with others who simply return again and again.  It manifests in the authentic greetings to us by the townspeople who readily discount our foreignness and ignorance of the language within a larger and more valued understanding of community.  We are here, which seems to be the only prerequisite of welcome and embrace.  More than once in these recent days, we have applied the metaphorical image we have associated with our farmstead — the taproot — to our experience here; deep, anchoring, earthy, and reconnecting with a cultural and formational ancient heritage in these mountains and fields that has dissipated in our contemporary, New World expression.  We aren’t native here — our ancestors were German and Irish — but we are feeling more Italian by the day.

Here, the ancient stories are embodied in the stones first mortared together in Roman times and later modified in medieval.  There are satellite dishes on roof tops, and power lines stretched between buildings — this is no artifact starved of modernity — but those roofs and buildings have seemingly been here forever with a kind of resident wisdom that informs and teaches and animates and frames.  “These days” are lived in constant and respectful conversation with “those days”, and life seems steadier, more grounded for the mortar of these ancient witnesses.

Angelo Mazzoli, a teacher and poet we met on our first full day in Spello, describes a “biblical animism” which presumably he believes to be this community’s aspiration and which has certainly been our experience, that “can bring new hopes for the future:
— the humility of feeling ourselves with all the others, nobody excluded.
— the intellectual honesty of to be and not to appear.
— the ethical strength of wanting to create the good.”

“Being,” rather than “appearing.”  Authenticity rather than artifice.  Stone that stands through the ages rather than sheet metal we throw up and just as easily tear down with little or no trace.

There are stories here; solid ones; cumulative ones; new ones stacked on top of and informed by ancient ones.

And so it was that yesterday we walked.  We explored a few of the side streets — the vias — that wind among the tight buildings.  Our friends stopped at one point, noticing the carvings above an ancient doorway signifying what had once been a church.  We mused about its interesting location and nondescript facade.  Our friends hadn’t noticed it before despite their years of exploring these pathways.  As we moved away from our pondering an elderly gentleman paused beside his car next door and engaged us in conversation.  Our friends translated his explanatory narrative about the church being built on this hillside as one of several fortress churches in the area by Pope Innocent IV in defense against the competing Pope in Avignon.  Here, on the “Way of Francis” a short distance from Assisi, that ancient Pope intended to prevail.

As he reached the end of his impromptu lesson our historical guide grew silent and we thanked him profusely; appreciating not only his generous gift of time and extensive knowledge, but his willingness to include us within its circle.  He simply shrugged and with a seasoned smile observed quite matter-of-factly that “if you have loved, remember it; if you have learned, share it.”

I don’t know how many times that elderly sage has voiced that rubric, but I suspect I’ll never stop thinking about its wisdom — and taking it to heart.

Remembering.  Sharing.  Fingering Dante’s virtue manifest in kindness.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Settling In to Spello


Delivered by the various planes, trains and automobiles to our long-anticipated apartment in Italy’s Spello, Umbria we shook off the residue of the time difference and the labors of travel and walked around. Spello is a hill town in the green heart of Italy — Roman, with later medieval accretions. There are more modern overlays, but those are less apparent; receding behind the more ancient cobblestones, walls and narrow passages. More crowded than we had anticipated — it was, after all, Saturday in the closing weeks of tourist season — we relaxed at our sidewalk table and over a simple lunch let the reality of our surroundings settle in.

We began planning this trip over a year ago — longer than that if you include my near-constant supplications over the past decade to Lori and the gods not to let me die before returning to Italy. We arranged for an apartment over the internet, eventually purchased our flights, and began to dreamily anticipate. Italy has had its problems over the course of its history, but there are good vibes here — a magic that I’m sure exists elsewhere, though perhaps nowhere quite like here. There is a depth, a grounding, a sweeping authenticity that is at once settling and centering, but also stirring and inspiring. There is an affectionate appreciation for the individual — the village flirt, the neighborhood artist, the aspiring poet with a constantly rotating collection of hats — subsumed beneath a more profound reverence for the community ethos within which those individuals, colorful and quiet alike, find place. Symbolically appropriate, then, that on our first full day in Spello we participated in the dedication festivities of a new outdoor public art installation evoked by that very theme: the many and diverse, within the larger and overarching community, as conceived and executed by an American artist who lives with her Italian husband part-time in Spello.

Whatever else we saw in these welcoming first hours and days in Spello — whatever else we ate and touched and dodged and felt — what we heard as the constant soundtrack on the streets and in the piazzas, punctuated by joyful exclamations and cheek kisses, were well-wishes. “Good morning.” “Good breakfast.” “Good Sunday.” “Good afternoon.”

“People here just want to wish you a good everything,” our friends and guides for the day explained.

And somehow we were included in the greetings and the smiles and benedictions. It’s a nice and welcomed contrast to the hyper-competitive, elbow-to-the-front-of-the-line, trash-tweeting, self-interested jostling that has made our home culture such a full-body contact sport. My soul is breathing again. Deeply.

Buon giorno, then. Have a wonderful day

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Now, With Death Considered, We Vigorously Get On With Life

We feel fine.  Really.  We are healthier than we have ever been, deliriously happy and looking forward to much, much more of the same.  And no, we aren't feeling particularly apocalyptic.  I'm not burdened with any heavy sense that these are "the end times." And it has nothing to do with the fact of my 61st birthday barreling down on me like one of the several hurricanes sweeping its terrible eye into the Gulf.   It's just that I am happy that it's done.  Finally.

Throughout my ministry I have encouraged people to consider their final arrangements.  By that I mean funeral plans.  What I have tried to communicate is that any number of people care about you, but no one wants to make your funeral plans.

On a few days notice.  In the midst of tears.

"Making your own arrangements, before they are needed, is the caring thing to do..."

...I have said to others -- for years -- but not myself.

Until, that is, a few months ago.  As Memorial Day approached, we began to consider our own memorials.  We talked about how we wish to end up.  We talked about where we wish to end up.  We talked about what kind of service in our memory we would prefer, what we would like included -- and excluded.  And after making all manner of decisions we sat down with a funeral director and put it all on record.  We purchased a cemetery plot (one, since our cremains will be buried together); we picked out a monument and how it should be inscribed.  And we wrote numerous checks to underwrite it all.  And we wrote drafts of our obituaries.  It's amazing how exemplary our lives have been when we get to be the ones describing them.   OK, that's a joke.  More truthfully, it's amazing how simple, straight-forward and succinct our lives are when we commit the salient details to print -- what we have valued; what in it all we disregard.  We could say more, of course; going on and on about this or that.  But eventually a kind of silliness ensues in the self-congratulation that we simply wouldn't condone.

And so there it is.  All of it finally done.  The ideas are formed, the plans are made, the Wills are updated, the necessaries are purchased and the stone is even solidly in place, awaiting the final chronological inscripted details.

I'll acknowledge that these are not comfortable conversations.  We haven't particularly enjoyed all this talk about our demise.  But we haven't thought of it as morbid.  We have thought of it as a gift -- to each other, to my kids, or to whomever else is left to sweep our proverbial floor.  Our preferences our clear, with enough leeway built in to overrule them as desired.  The tangible choices are made, the financial burdens are lifted.  All our surviving loved ones need do is grieve.  And that, of course, is up to them.

For our part, with these ending questions answered and their practical implications arranged, we can get on with living.



And hopefully for a long time to come.

After all, there is hanging fruit to harvest, new seeds to plant, fresh grains to thresh, and more eggs to gather.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A Call to Something More Holy Than Supreme

I don’t want to talk about the President.  It’s not that I don’t care about the office or have no opinion of its current occupant.  It’s simply that in these ham-handed, binary times during which subtlety and nuance have become casualties of public discourse where reason and reasonable objectivity once felt comfortably at home, I’ll express my political thoughts in the ballot box.  Besides, I try to keep in mind that nausea and diarrhea are not the real problems when I’m suffering such maladies, but the outward expression of something deeper. 

So no, I’m less concerned about the President than I am about the rest of us.  This is surely not the first time in history that a people have lost their way, but we seem hell-bent on elevating our particular manifestation of lostness to epic heights.  Or perhaps we should be speaking, instead, of depths.  Wiser social observers than me will better understand what brought us to this morass.  Stolen opportunity.  Economic frustration.  An increasingly crowded and diverse public and philosophical space.  Instant and constant communication of both news and opinion with no rubrics to differentiate the two.  All of the above.  And more.  But whatever the drivers, they have brought us to a very loud, aggressive, intolerant and unforgiving place.  And it’s frightening.  I wish that the shameful clash of people and ideologies last weekend in Virginia – fueled by prejudiced hatred – was the exception, but alas it is paradigmatic. 

Only two descriptors present themselves in what remains of the conduct of our public life:  “me”, and everyone else.  Every now and then multiple “me’s” seem able to make common cause, but they are marriages of convenience rather than sacred vows, as fragile as the egos that beat their chests behind them. 

But of all the battling contestants in this Roman Coliseum called “America”  I am perhaps most disappointed in my own lifelong community:  the church.  Our most visible representatives have become “hater apologists” – or, in the words of our biblical forebears, “Court Prophets.”  And our congregations, once ideologically royal purple, have segregated into Reds and Blues.  More partisan than confessional, more defensive than invitational, more condemning than caring, it’s hard to find much residue in our worship and our “discipleship” of the one we profess to follow. 

As long as we view ourselves as “supreme” – racially, politically, patriotically, morally -- we are missing the point, and are well along the way to losing our soul. 

The fact is we simply cannot love by hating.  We cannot welcome through exclusion.  We cannot heal by brutalizing.  We cannot grow deeper by becoming more and more shallow.  We have a better story than that.  We have a better message than that.  We have a nobler mission than that. And we have a more powerful example than that.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Learning How to Cry Like A Baby

At six and a half months of age, Truett is an extraordinarily happy and easy-going baby.  He smiles, he laughs, he scrutinizes the various textures with which his fingers come into contact, he studies intently nearby objects and movements with a decided preference for ceiling fans whenever he can catch sight of one.  He will concentrate on curiosities for minutes at a time.  But make no mistake, he does, indeed, cry.  He cries when he is hungry, and he cries when he is overly tired -- this latter, of course, along with an occasional whimper when a diaper change is overdue, is hardly his fault.  Credit those tears to his caregivers who have gotten busy with other matters under heaven.  So, hunger and fatigue.  That's pretty much it, which I find to be an amazingly short list.

When, I've begun to wonder -- and for what reasons -- does that list begin to lengthen?  By the time a person reaches my age we are crying about all sorts of things -- skinned knees and hurt feelings, griefs, disappointments regardless of merit, even unspeakable joys.  We cry because we don't get our way, we cry because of what was said about us on the playground or by the media.  We cry at movies, we cry in church, we cry with relief.  But even as I review the list which is intrinsically incomplete, I note that somewhere along the way tears of need -- for food, for rest -- give way to tears of want.  I cry because I received what I didn't want -- or conversely, I cry because what I desperately wanted actually came my way?  

I don't mean to malign the “wants”. After all, developmental psychologists would dig down into several of them and find them  sprouting from core needs like validation and basic security of one form or another.  That said, I can't help but wonder if our lists of crying offenses haven't gotten a bit out of control.  Could it be that when we call someone a “big baby”, rather than the target of our derision we are slandering instead the babies in our midst who reserve their tears for the core essentials?

Maybe that's what Jesus had in mind when he encouraged us to become like little children, rather than the whining adults we have excessively become.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Inevitable Vicissitudes -- and Work -- Of Politics

A few years ago I had the privilege of assisting a family making burial arrangements at the Veteran's Cemetery near Des Moines. It is a beautiful and beautifully maintained memorial site, tightly managed and efficiently run. The representative helping the family went through the options, the paperwork, and the benefits -- among them being a certificate commemorating the deceased and signed by the President. I was saddened -- no, I was angered -- when the representative paused at this point and with a kind of pregnant gaze mentioned to the family that the form for this certificate didn't have to be sent in any time soon. “Some would prefer their certificate to be signed by a different President, and so delay the submission.”
I've been thinking of that lamentable conversation in recent days as we collectively start a new chapter as a citizenry. We are of a decidedly mixed mind as we toe up to this starting line. Some are excited by the prospects. Others find them appalling. Fair enough. That's the political system. Always there are defenders and detractors. Always there are political allies as well as foes both partisan and principled. Some in each category are more strident than others. At the end of the day, however, we only get one President at a time. One, who serves us all.
Which is why I'm feeling again the same acute sadness, weariness and indeed annoyance with the “opt out” reflex so popular among so many of us as I did that day in the Veteran's Cemetery. “Not my President” is the mantra I see hashtagged, Facebooked, bumper stickered and crowed. But that sentiment makes for a better slogan than a democracy. We get one President at a time, whether it's the one we voted for or not. He or she may not represent our values, our core principles or our chosen way of being in the world. But make no mistake: she or he does indeed represent us in consequential ways that bear our signature, whether we have written it there or not. There are no asterisks, no “opt out” boxes, no abstentions. Republicans, who constantly chaffed at such “not my President” dismissals of George W. Bush’s legitimacy, should be just as vigilant about this as Democrats who wearied at the similarly obstructionist and repugnant dismissals by Republicans of Barack Obama's leadership.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not happy about where we are and where the signs suggest we are headed. I didn't vote for this President. Quite apart from his philosophical principles which I find mercurial at best and callous if not punitive at worst, for all his financial and professional advantages I experience him to be an unseemly, boorish, churlish cretin who offends most of my moral, religious and social sensibilities, most of the time.
But we only get one President at a time, and though the parties have their own interests to spin, it is in no one's interest for him to fail. Like it or not, he is OUR President. We had better figure out how to encourage him, pray for him, indeed nudge him toward our collective success, or it will be to our collective loss.
Lobby, then, write letters, call your elected representatives, make your views known, and in a few years vote again, keeping in mind that ones principles prevail either by outnumbering those who oppose them, or by persuasion -- and the former is typically accomplished by the latter.
Those who long for a different course might consider abandoning the quixotic quest for technicalities to invalidate the recent election, along with the near drone-like dismissals of everything emanating from it, and get on with the harder but more critical work of fashioning and communicating a compellingly winsome case for something better.
Far more than merely casting a vote, that's the real work of a democracy.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Packed Away, But Not Quite Forgotten

Santa survived another year.  I don’t mean “Santa” in the fairy tale sense, or “Santa” in the metaphorical sense, or “Santa” in the nostalgic sense.  I mean the fragile construction paper ornament that has hung on a Diebel family Christmas tree for each of the past 50 years.  More, I hope, since I would like to believe that the crudely simple little work of childhood fabrication is the product of a very young Tim Diebel.  But give it its due:  what it lacks in fine artistry it more than makes up for in longevity.  Every Advent that we have had it since my parents passed it into our keeping from theirs I have feared for its survival.  The paper is increasingly brittle and the folds frightfully thin.  Unwilling to risk the tugs of a wire ornament hanger I routinely nestle it in amongst the branches of the tree, crossing my fingers that nothing will dislodge it and send it to its dismemberment.

But here we were on January 8 stowing the precious decorations and dismantling the tree – late, I know, for most households but a precious indulgence in ours – and Paper Santa was the last to be removed.  I had worked around it.  First came off the glass stars, and then the miscellaneous treasures from travels and friends and family remembrances.  The balls were next and then the topping bow. 

Everything, one by one, until nothing remained but Santa.   I haven’t fully found explanation for my reticence.  I am a sentimental fool, and that’s almost certainly part of the reason.  Memories of Christmas trees past and the family times around them are powerful forces, and I willingly submit to their embrace.  So yes, sentimentality is part of it – but only part. 

I’m getting older, too – now months into my 61st year – and touching something of my childhood affords a kind of steadying existential crutch amidst the dizzying awareness of the passage of time.  I still can’t believe I have already attended my 40th high school reunion since it feels, for all the world, like that senior year was months rather than decades ago.  I rarely see those old classmates and know practically nothing of their present lives, and yet I still think of them as close and best friends.  Some of them were around, I suspect, when Paper Santa was getting colored, cut and folded, and there is something grounding about fingering the cotton puffs and the crayon lines.

It could likewise be that with the birth of a new grandson I am anticipating a whole new generation of Paper Santas to come – this ancient one as something of an anticipatory foretaste of the feast to come.  I hope so – and look forward to making room on future trees.

Future, then, as well as past; an ancient self visiting a much older one; memory as well as promise; grounding as well as fancy; childhood naiveté confronting and challenging the cynicism of age.

I don’t know completely.  All I know is that it was the last to leave its bristly perch and the longest to remain in my hands; held, cherished – not so much as a talisman with magic powers for whatever lies ahead, but more as a touchstone, a blessing of sorts, from all that lies behind that has prepared this self for whatever might yet be.

Goodnight, then, Santa.

Until next year.