Saturday, January 29, 2011

Charlie Brown (And Simple Joy)

I love this boy:

I love his round head and his shoes that look like weather-beaten footballs with the air leaking out.

I love how he holds his face in his small hands when the world of "Wah, wah wah wah" is just too complicated to handle.

I love his deep talks with Linus (and Linus' blanket) on that brick wall that never moves, never changes.

I love that small smile and his inability to believe in himself (that part? That part right there is me sometimes).

Why? Why write about Charlie Brown in a blog that is so chock full of things about missing DC, about loving friendship and laughter and joy and the whole package of living?

I know. It seems silly.

But I think that's what I wanted to write about him today. Because sometimes we just aren't silly enough. We don't laugh enough. We don't do this:

or this:

And I wanted to say thank you to Charlie Brown, his football mishaps, his love of the little red-haired girl (who inspired my application essay to Princeton University) and most of all that wonderful, exasperated phrase: "Good grief!"

We need simple joy. 

Simply. Joy

Charlie Brown is that for me - he makes me laugh, he reminds me that after all, life is simple - Thanksgiving meals around a ping pong table, the Christmas tree too weak for even one ornament, and the colorful cast of characters in our lives that endear themselves to us over and over until we are ourselves with them, our best selves and our funny selves and our stressed selves. 

We need the laughter that begins in our eyes when we see the joke coming from a long way off, or the slipping and falling into a puddle, or the hilarious attempt to exit a revolving door before the actual entrance. We need the laughter that you can hear down the hallway of the apartment building and into the street, the laughter that bangs around the walls of the dorm rooms and living rooms and cozy fireplace rooms. We need the laughter tenses up our stomach muscles until we almost can't breathe it's just so funny. 

Did you laugh like that today? 

We need simple joy. Simply, joy

And Charlie Brown? Thanks


Friday, January 28, 2011

The Women (A Five Minute Post)

Lisa-Jo challenged me to write about "the women" in just five minutes!

I'm new amongst them, my blogger dashboard filled with new faces and names, new links to stories of marriage, children, the crazy challenge of gratitude and hands open and life. I don't know all of them well yet, splashing in this new pond like a duck whose feet are still a little big for her body.

But they read and they listen and from the midst of all their noisy joyful chaos they find time to tell me that I am a writer. And I want to say back, "I am learning from you!"

These women, from their hair to their toes, are never through puzzling out the joy of living, never through gazing in frustration and awe at the leaves translucent in spring and the bare tree branches of winter. They seem to soak in the smells of fresh coffee and the quick silence of sleeping faces scrubbed clean of a day's hard play in the dirt.

You all remind me to take long drinks of water, to smile at strangers when they pass me on the sidewalk, to eat a popsicle some afternoons just because. You all, in your many colors and sounds and spinning laughing worlds tell me that all of this? This is all about God.

And thank you - your words in your office, tea cups and big sighs and hugs when the day is long and we both know it. Thank you - praying an extra minute of thankfulness into my day when I might have forgotten and left it behind. Thank you - for the questions I keep asking eyes wide and smile ready - and for hearing in those questions something real to answer.

Thank you.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

When Memory Smells like Vanilla Chai

It's been 6 weeks since I left Washington, DC and returned to snowy Massachusetts. It's been 6 weeks (almost 7 now) since I felt the cold steadiness of Eastern Market bricks under my feet. I haven't seen this vision (captured beautifully by my friend Hannah):

And the missing sometimes catches me at the smallest moments in my day. I'll be trekking through the muck of three day old snow on my way to granola and yogurt in the dining hall, thinking about all of the work I have to do by tomorrow (or sometimes by 3pm that afternoon), and I will remember. I will remember what it feels like to fill my lungs with city air. What it feels like to fall asleep with two girls and our messy closet tucked in tight on the top floor. How I couldn't make myself wake up before 7:25 for the 7:55 bus and ALWAYS ran out the door only to run down half of the stairs, realize I'd forgotten something important (like my phone or my wallet) and have to run back up and back down again and hope that the nice bus driver (the one who repeats, 'Union Station, Union Station' when the annoying female voice on the D6 bus says, 'Columbus Circle and First St') would be a couple of minutes late.

The memories pound fast and furious and my brain reels from their weight. I can't keep holding it all, but I don't want to put it down, leave anything in the lurch between Reagan Airport and Logan. A particularly wise woman suggested to me the other day that I can't, can't, can't carry everything from DC with me here. I don't have suitcases big enough for the tucked away treasures - that afternoon by myself walking home from the Utrecht art supply store, or the surprisingly good hummus and pita bread appetizer I got at Nando's Peri Peri restaurant in October. I can't wheelbarrow back the buckets of pictures or the innumerable sunny walks back by the gleaming Heritage Foundation, or I will become so exhausted that I'll collapse. Instead, this wise woman suggested that I take the time to sort through the suitcases I've brought back, choosing the treasures and truths to carry home with me. 

I've been listening to The Weepies a lot this week, as I try to put down into words and into roots the true treasures of my semester away, as I clear a path through the beauty and fill myself up with the joys and sorrows and presences that, for now, seem the most important to carry forward. And The Weepies have this song, called "Slow Pony Home," and it has these words in the beginning:

It's the second September I have known you
Four years or so ago, I rode a pony, called him "Truth"
We didn't know the way so it took us till today to get here

And all that time, I felt just fine
I held so many people in my suitcase heart
That I had to let the whole thing go
It was taken by the wind and snow
And I still didn't know that I was waiting
For a girl on a slow pony home...

I don't really know if the hope of Deb and Steve (the singers) is to speak comforting words to me as I sit at my desk in my room with so many people and places in my suitcase heart, but it is a slow pony home. It is a slow winding way back to regular, back to full, back to home. And as you've all been hearing about for a while now, I'm puzzling through this returning with aches of the other gravity, the other wind, the other air. I have a suitcase heart, and it's filled to the brim with so many things I'm not sure that I can keep holding onto it as tightly as I want to. Maybe Deb sings it right - I'm waiting for a girl on a slow pony home. That's me. Me on a slow pony home. 

And oh, what I would give to walk into this place: 

and curl up with One Thousand Gifts and read, read, read and talk, talk talk my way back into October. I would drink vanilla chai and walk through the all-too-short blinking intersection lights on my way to the Capitol.

And so, I smell the memory, color in and outside the lines of the blank pictures and paint bright yellows all over it. And so, I start looking outside me - because today? Today in Massachusetts is beautiful. Today in the snow that almost buries an entire tree outside my window there is so much beautiful, and I don't want to forget it, to think that beautiful things only happen in Washington, DC or in Rome, Italy or in Hammond, Indiana or in any place except the one that I currently call home. So I look outside and drink vanilla chai... 


(photos - the first four from Hannah, and the last from me). 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Just His.

Sometimes I wake up in the morning crabby and silent. I make the motions of getting ready - clothes and teeth brushing and book gathering - and then go stand in front of the mirror for the daily inspection: putting on my makeup. 

I linger over eyeshadows and blushes, whisk the bronzer over my face and scrunch my eyes tight as the bristles brush by. I paint my eyelids with what I hope is not too much blue, and I poke at my lower lids with soft black liner. I survey the result like a prospector after gold - pretty enough for today? Studious enough? Achieving enough? 

I am twenty. Sometimes my face is a stranger to me. 

The curves of my nose and mouth retraced over and over in the reflection of the harsh winter sun glancing off the snow. I am twenty and when I put on my makeup I am ten again, playing grown up dress up for the parade of people in my day....

I'm blogging on over at The Gypsy Mama today. Won't you join me? Click on over here


PS. And Mandie? Still can't say thank you enough for those exquisite pictures. I'm so thankful.  

Saturday, January 22, 2011

And so I Look for Vita (Musings from My Journals in Italy)

God speaks Italian - did you know that? Oh how He loves to speak it. He loves to let those words wash over His people as they totter through the cobblestone streets of Orvieto, and Roma, and Fiorenze. He loves to shower them with flowing Italian in San Bernadino, the Duomo di Orvieto, in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, in Santa Maria Novella... And so in Italy, in Italian, English, Polish, sign language, and the most wonderful language of all - silence - I hear God speaking.

Rilke tells me that the "point is to live everything." That's why when questions are unresolved in our heart we are to love the questions themselves, not be angry or upset that the answer has not arrived. Rilke tells me that I do not have answers because I cannot live them yet. And so I ask, "Why Italy, Father?" Why this Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi, with its luxurious vision of the city at my back, the sun beaming its way through stray shirts on the line, green plants on rooftops, twinkling trees in bloom? Why this overwhelming love as the air cools my face, soothes my anxieties (there are so many of them) and nudges me forward to see basilica domes peeking above the brightly colored buildings? How can anyone bear to leave Italy? Why must I leave, I ask myself.

And the question is unresolved in my heart, right next to the question of leaving DC, of leaving, generally. Why must we go? Why must we separate from places we love and people we love, tear off corners of our heart and plant them deep into soil we may never tiptoe again? I find at the end of every journey, however short and seemingly insignificant, I must return into my heart and tear off this piece for the place I am leaving. I rip it slowly, each tear trying to be precise, and end up with jagged edges - not cut along dotted lines but cut like jigsaw puzzle pieces.

And as I stoop down to the cobbled streets in front of St. Peter's Basilica, I scratch open a little piece and leave the raggedy heart-piece behind, and I remember in a rush of warm delicious sadness all those other places and pieces - 8th St, Quantock Hills, Chartres, Le Volcan off the Place Monge in Paris, Waring's backstage area in the theatre, Jubilee Center in Montgomery, AL, the nightswimming hole in Austin, TX, Campobello Island picking up trash in fog and windy rain, Ebenezer's coffeehouse, the beach Dad and I always go to together, Grandpa's grave in Kentucky - spring up before me. How many heart pieces I have scattered all over this earth. Hello, I call out to them - hello, ache of return. Hello, heart wobbly and full.

And then I remember the most miraculous thing of all - that even as I messily tear off corners of my heart for Italy, God pours a little more love into me, fills me up beyond the brim of what I can bear, so that saying goodbye is sweet sorrow, full of the best kind of homesickness. It's the homesick of children hungry for Narnia, for the Aslan who calls "all times soon." It's the homesick of cups of cocoa by a fire you built remembering your dad, or the homesick of a shirt that smells the special Mom-smell.

I can speak no answer into being - Rilke is right about that. But I carry the answer forward in cupped hands and we live the answer, the homesickness, the ever-filling of love even when we don't want it, even when we are cranky and jet-lagged and just wishing for a really good cappuccino and for someone to say, "I understand." He just keeps on loving until we burst with the love and it seeps from us into all of the corners of ordinary - of my room that needs cleaning and my reading that needs reading and my legs that need to take a walk and my hands that itch to write.

"Fear not, little flock, for it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." - Luke 12.32. Sitting on this airplane, cramped up in the seat with children fussing and moms wearied and teenagers plugged into their own quiet worlds, I hear these words and I think, am I afraid to take pleasure in gifts? Am I afraid to receive the life, this dolci vita, this gorgeous broken beautiful life in my hands? And Jesus gently scolds away my fears - for it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. He delights in giving gifts, even the hard ones of homesickness and confusion and sadness - because they lead to Him, always to Him, the Giver of Life.

And so I'm looking for vita as our plane bumps down and my handwriting scrawls big on the pages of this journal. Life, in its fullness and its rich sweet hard things. Vita in lazy Italian breezes and heavy New England snows, in the passing of winter into spring, the emergence of new friends and the challenges of holding tight to the ones I already love.

Look with me - for there is so much to see that we need to look together to glimpse it all.

Ciao, bella.


Friday, January 21, 2011

Running Into Fresh Air (A Five Minute Post)

Lisa-Jo challenged me to write someone into words for just five minutes!

She is like a breath of fresh air when I barrel headlong into her purple jacket - hair windswept from the snow outside and smile quick and easy. Her face lights up as she whispers, "Hey!" and wraps me tight in a hug even as she finished her conversation with the scruffy boy to her right. He smiles, departs, and she turns to me.

"Hilary, how are you?" And in the question she leans forward, her mouth quickly straightening into a line of listening, her eyes locked onto mine, as if she wants to know the answer so much that her whole body is quivering with excitement.

She has brown and blond hair, strands mingling their way around her jacket hood and her hands fly around her, clasp and unclasp as she listens and then talks, and then listens again. Over and over she teaches me the patterns of conversation, as I watch her laugh silently at my slightly stupid joke and then again light up when I mention education and the movie and the promises of these next months.

She is small but her presence is palpable by this staircase and these dark blue banisters; palpable as I hear her smile in her words in her heart. She says goodbye like a greeting for the next time.


Sometimes, All I See Are the Stella (Musings from My Journals in Italy)

God speaks Italian - did you know that? Oh how He loves to speak it. He loves to let those words wash over His people as they totter through the cobblestone streets of Orvieto, and Roma, and Fiorenze. He loves to shower them with flowing Italian in San Bernadino, the Duomo di Orvieto, in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, in Santa Maria Novella... And so in Italy, in Italian, English, Polish, sign language, and the most wonderful language of all - silence - I hear God speaking.

The Uffizi gallery is quieter than in summertime, we're told as we huddle together, purple and green and black coats lurking in the entryway. We hike our way up flights of stairs, tired feet and heads full of so many frescoes I'm not sure which church is which, whether Fra Angelico painted the Annunciation in San Marco or the San Brizio Chapel in the Duomo in Orvieto. And then the customary hush when you enter the presence of Art. 

And there is so much art here. It lurks on the ceiling - detailed paintings of Machiavelli and Galileo, the Medici family. The marble of the floors is art. the sculptures lurking in their neighbors' shadows along corridor after corridor, the frame by frame beauty of renderings of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis receiving the stigmata... and I am suddenly heaven-bound, lifted up out of these tired feet into stars. I see so much beauty I want to taste it. I see so much of the vibrant, technicolor world, its dimensions stretching beyond our customary four into the dimensions of hope and justice and promises. I sink into the leather couch and start, because who is there but the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel and Mary. Botticelli's famous Venus painting is a few frames away, but while tourists click and flash their cameras, I can't stop looking at the Annunciation. 

The angel has landed heavily, and I can hear the thud as his feet clatter to the floor. Mary looks startled, yet not surprised. I wonder if she expected to receive that visit that day. Was her heart so open, so ready, that she could not be surprised by the arrival? Or is the start painted more subtly, in the weighty thud of Gabriel and the visible shaking of the room? 

And suddenly - a poem has arrived. My own small annunciation. The words drip out of my pen onto the page faster than I can think them. How long has it been since a poem has arrived in my heart? And yet it is here, looking at this painting, Botticelli's art making poetry about art and circling all of this creating back to the source, the Annunciation, the arrival. 

Sometimes, all I see are the stella, the stars. Sometimes in between cups of cappuccino and kinder bars I find myself gazing at the world in childlike wonder, that he made all this, all THIS, for us to enjoy. He made all of this because it is all kinds of beautiful. Because He loves to make things beautiful. I gaze at the Italian night sky when our train pulls into the Orvieto station and discover that it is scattered with stella, their light beaming back the same joyful presence that I feel in my heart. They seem to smile down at my shivering body and messy heart and say, "Yes, Hilary, He really is this good, this kind of good, this full, this ready to love you more than you have ever been loved before."

Hear that today, friends. He is this good. He is stella good - the maker of stars and smallness, the One who writes Himself into universes and galaxies and the One who writes Himself in the sand of Nazareth and vineyards. In Italy I feel like Zacchaeus climbing the tree to see Jesus - the view is just so much better up here, where the air is clear and the wind quick, where I can cup my hand to my ear and hear good conversations and good questions, and the silence of art. The view is so good up here - and I can see how sometimes we get dazzled by the stella and we forget how to turn around and see Him. But He is that good, and that ready to love us beyond our wildest dreams.

I leave you with a poem (not mine - that's still being revised!) that I've long loved, by a poet I love:


Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distantdeath, 
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds andbarn 
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.

Ciao, Bella.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Life is Dolci (Musings from My Journals in Italy)

God speaks Italian - did you know that? Oh how He loves to speak it. He loves to let those words wash over His people as they totter through the cobblestone streets of Orvieto, and Roma, and Fiorenze. He loves to shower them with flowing Italian in San Bernadino, the Duomo di Orvieto, in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, in Santa Maria Novella... And so in Italy, in Italian, English, Polish, sign language, and the most wonderful language of all - silence - I hear God speaking.

Today we boarded the train at 7:44am, eyes bleary and hands tucked into coat pockets and ratty gloves, our breath like smoke rings in the Orvieto morning. We were bound for Florence, or, as the conductor says, "Firenze Santa Maria Novella." I keep thinking about blogging as I am cut off from blogging, how I would like to scatter words about Italy to you like leaves you can't help but throw up after your mother has neatly raked them into a pile. And today I found two things, two little snippets and snapshots that might shed a little bit of this radiant Italian light onto your day: Santa Maria Novella and nutella gelato. 

Santa Maria Novella is a church built of Florentine marble, greens and reds and whites stacked like Lego blocks towering above me, such a change from the translucent whiteness of French churches. 

And the cloisters, echoey and wide, seem to welcome me and my feeble, warbling voice as I tentatively hum a few bars of "All Ye Who Music" - an old song from my 9th grade chorus. Italy, or what I have glimpsed of it, is full to the brim of these tucked away treasures, pearls of a great price that are known only to those weary travelers who, full of sleep and brioche and questions tramp their feet across the threshold. Beauty here is exceptional and everyday, taken as a simple fact of seeing this grand world but hanging out your laundry, because there is laundry to do and meals to cook. 

I want to run arms outstretched to the sky and shout, "Thank you!" for what else can we ever say, when, as wise Ann says, "all's Grace" - all of this crazy beautiful creativity. Humans are terribly, wondrously creative, our chisels and paints and words and pens and blogs and books. We map our world, we make metaphors and pictures, we sing and pray and laugh together. Who needs adjectives, I wonder, when so much of the beauty of being human is that we are verb creatures? We act and contemplate and love.

Yes, there it is again, that Love, dolci and bella and meraviglioso, that theme that won't let me go this year, this new season. Even as I roll through Umbria and Tuscany and gape at a blood red sun over the papal fortress walls, through copses of trees shaped like towers, or at fog so thick I could wrap myself in it.

Love, as I stroll the corso, my hands swinging at my sides, my heart brimming with the spirals of the duomo, the sweet sticky face of the boy eating a Kinder bar in the caffé where we get cappuccino.

Love, as my mouth smiles in delight when I find that I can order a gelato with raspberry (lampone) and nutella (cappriccio) and let them take me back to Pitango Gelato Company on 7th St in Chinatown.

Love, friends. Love in the language of nutella and Santa Maria Novella, in the chipping paint and scuff marks, the tortellini and the Tiber.

How much of this world have we forgotten to love today? How many sorrowful stories have we chosen to tell beyond our joyful ones? How many thousands of small gifts, moments of wonder, moments of the piercing clarity of His eyes have we missed because we were looking at empty hands, at what we didn't get for Christmas this year, at even the simple failure to pack our bags for school before leaving for Italy? He longs to put Love in our grubby hands - but He waits for us to say Yes first. Yes, Lord, I will see You here. Yes, Lord, I will journey scrambling over rocks and thorns and thistles, trek through the muck and mess and miracle of hearts to that place where You show Yourself glorious and where we can hear You say, "I love this one of mine."

And so in the midst of this country I call dolci, sweet, so sweet it smudges on my face like chocolate, I hear Him say that about all of you. And I hear Him scold me for forgetting about this great call to love, love of the mundane, of bread and wine and gelato and markets full of flowers and languages we can't understand and Italy.

So I pray with you, from the pages of this small journal cramped into a chair on Trenitalia, returning to Orvieto:

Heavenly Father, we give You thanks for the small gifts today, for meals to enjoy and friends to love, for the smells of peonies and the extravagant beauty of birds. We thank You for the questions children ask and the stories that humble us with their answers. We thank You that Your sovereignty is full and gentle, Your love is sweet and fierce, and that You create in us the ability to know You. May I be a vessel of Your love to this world and the people You have put in my heart. Help me to whisper always of Your love for them and for this world, that Your light may radiate forth and illuminate all things. In Jesus, Amen.

Ciao, bella.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

You are Meraviglioso (Musings from My Journals in Italy)

God speaks Italian - did you know that? Oh how He loves to speak it. He loves to let those words wash over His people as they totter through the cobblestone streets of Orvieto, and Roma, and Fiorenze. He loves to shower them with flowing Italian in San Bernadino, the Duomo di Orvieto, in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, in Santa Maria Novella... And so in Italy, in Italian, English, Polish, sign language, and the most wonderful language of all - silence - I hear God speaking.

Our first day in Rome I am overwhelmed with the incomprehensibility of streets where there is no sidewalk and you press your little body up against the orange or yellow walls of the building and hope that the car doesn't hit you on its rambling way. I am overwhelmed in these churches, their Baroque ornate gold, inlays of marble and tiled floor almost too much for my eyes to take in. I am entranced by the sheer magnitude of Catholicism in this city. 365 churches. Four basilicas. There is almost too much to see. Dominican sisters pass me on one side of the street and Franciscans on the other. I hear the whispered words of the Liturgy of the Eucharist beginning as I shyly glance at the altars and paintings. And then there is the vision of St. Peter's from across the Tiber River.

 What am I, a small person in a gloriously old world, to say? I eat my zucchini and mozzarella pizza and think to myself as we pause in our day to exhale the things we have seen. What can I possibly say to this city? And I sigh and fold my scarf into my coat, my eyes tracing the curves of columns and arches, and a slight spring in my step. For if I have nothing to say, then I can listen. If I am not talking, I can hear Rome talking. And it says that history is meraviglioso - marvelous. In a world so transient that most of us cannot remember breakfast, in a world where we compose emails faster than we write a note to someone, in a world where we would rather use google to translate our Italian needs than ask in our timid reedy voices - we need history all the more. Walk these streets with me, readers - and feel with me the many footsteps you are stepping into. For more years than we are capable of conceiving, this stone has been rounded by the footsteps of strangers and friends, of enemies and wanderers. In this land, I feel how we are shrouded in time, how it hovers around us as a quiet reminder of its Maker. For more unfathomable than the towering columns and the extraordinary ruins -


More unfathomable than that vision is that God is outside our time. He sees me in my blue jeans and my wide eyed stare in the same eternal vision that He sees Dante, He sees Marcus Aurelius, He sees St. Teresa of Avila. God did not simply suspend time, or act outside it - He who made it entered it. He glorifies time and its passing by living in time itself. Jesus enters the history I can feel under my feet and that I smell in the dust floating above my head. Jesus lives in the history I touch as I run my fingers over the base of a column. History is suddenly of the utmost importance. The Incarnation reaches into the deepest corners of humanness - it touches not only our sorrows and our laughter, not only our material world of bread and wine and olive fields, not only our mothers and fathers, not only the quivering hopes and dreams we dream in monasteries in Orvieto - the Incarnation touches History itself, touches Meaning, touches Time. God who sees all and knows all and loves all sends Jesus to restore everything to Himself. I never understood the depth of the Incarnational touch until here. 

And I am in awe. You are Meraviglioso, God. Your hands that reached to touch the face of Mary Magdalene, Your voice that speaks and thus brings all of creation into being, Your love that promises, and fulfills all Your promises... You are meraviglioso to behold. 

At the very end of Advent, dear friends, I wrote this in my prayer journal. I pray it again with you, from bella Italia.

O Heavenly Father, how might I become as open as Mary, as the small stable in Bethlehem, as Bethlehem itself, so that Jesus might be born in me? Show me how to bear Jesus, O Lord, into this world You have made, so that all may see Him in my heart. Show me how to carry Your Son, Your only Son whom You love so dearly. May I bear Him, God? May I bear Christ in my heart today? O God come speedily and mightily to help us and bring Your Son Jesus to be our peace. Crack open my heart and prepare Yourself a home there. Be forever near me, Lord God Almighty. For with You alone is light and joy and love. With You alone is all of life.

Ciao, bella. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Ciao, Bella (Musings from My Journals in Italy)

God speaks Italian - did you know that? Oh how He loves to speak it. He loves to let those words wash over His people as they totter through the cobblestone streets of Orvieto, and Roma, and Fiorenze. He loves to shower them with flowing Italian in San Bernadino, the Duomo di Orvieto, in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, in Santa Maria Novella... And so in Italy, in Italian, English, Polish, sign language, and the most wonderful language of all - silence - I hear God speaking. 

I have landed in Italy after many hours on a cramped plane, my legs creaking with the effort of stretching, my eyelids drooping dangerously close to being shut. I force sleep away as I take my pen in hand to begin bleeding ink for the next ten days. Thus begins Italy - landscapes with rolling hills outside my window as we veer around the sharp corners of the road leading to Orvieto, a hilltop town between Rome and Florence...

The air smells crisp and damp and earthy, and I can almost taste the green I see spread out like a blanket before my eyes. I love that there is quiet here in this 12th century monastery, its white walls and high ceilings holding so many heaping years of contemplation they almost quiver. Oh how I want to treasure this country, the first sips of espresso in a cappuccino; the mint green shutters and bright clean air. There are deep roots here, of soil and war and love, of passagatta and gelato and bellissimo. How miraculous that I have arrived, sitting on this IKEA bed, drinking in the newness of another country, the fresh promise of making mistakes and hearing myself make them. I cannot pronounce "ciao" in a convincingly Italian way. At lunch I discovered that, though I adore freshly pressed olive oil, I still cannot stand olives and embarrassingly push them to the side of my plate. I discover that jet lag does set in, no matter how many times you travel.

There is so much of this trip that just feels like pure gift - a gift for the beginning of the new year, a gift of time apart from the familiar chaos of Massachusetts, a gift of presence, of solitude amid community. I almost don't know how to cup my hands around it and hold it - but yet, I am told to taste and see that the Lord is good. And I want to drink in this land like a cup of warm hot chocolate on a cold day. I want to let it soak into my bones and I want to carry this delicious air back with me. 

Our minds make better pictures than our cameras, I think. I look, and since the time I was in high school, I itch to draw, to let my mind form and reform the image until my hands can shape it even crudely with a pencil. I wish I could draw, not so that I could show others, but so that I could show myself. So I reach for a pencil and a piece of scrap paper and draw the window, and the harsh blue sky beyond it:

And I am in love with bella Italia. 

Ciao, bella. 

Friday, January 7, 2011

Bon Giourno, Italy! (The Prospect of Silence for Ten Days)

If you didn't know from my blog post about speaking French, I am a bit of a language buff. I like to roll new words and phrases around on my tongue and let the accent slip out from between my teeth. I like the way that you can only say some things in sign language, or in Portuguese, or in Finnish. That languages, far from translating each other, really translate us.

And today I leave for a whirlwind trip to Italy. Seven hours of air travel and one stuffed carry-on (did you know that, if packed properly, a carry-on bag can contain three pairs of pants, a skirt, at least four sweaters, pajamas, another pair of shoes, and six shirts?) later, I will land in Roma... and suddenly have nothing to say.

I speak no Italian. I can mimic the sounds of "scusi" or "por favore" the words sound parroted and hollow. I can smile broadly and nod. I can gesture with my hands. But I can't conjugate verbs, use adjectives and gendered nouns, and I certainly can't pick up an Italian newspaper and tell you what is going on in the world.

And this is perhaps the most humbling way to begin 2011. I am so accustomed, on this blog, in Washington, at my college, in France - to being understood, to speaking the language and expressing myself in it. And rather than a ten day trip to France or back to 8th St, I am beginning in a place where I am a stranger, and a place where I will be asked to be a lot quieter than I am in Massachusetts.

I am so filled with words, words, words sometimes I think I will simply burst with them. But in these next ten days, as I wander far from computers, cell phones, iPods and into ruins, the Church of the Caravita, the silence of the San Paolo monastery after curfew, and the crevices of Orvieto corners, Rome streets and Florentine gelateries - I will quiet my voice, quiet my mind, quiet my heart. I will live in the place of quiet - begin the year without any linguistic trapezes, sit at a table in a caffe and simply float on the sounds of the words I don't know. My eyes will become more watchful, my ears more attentive - and blessedly, my words less.

Readers, the land of Italy beckons this morning, a siren song in the cold between my sheets, a shiver up my spine and through the hardwood floors of this ramshackle colonial house. I want to take you with me - so I will be "blogging" by journaling, and when I return, I will get to share some of the tastes and smells and sights with you. Stay tuned for the experience of the silence. 


Monday, January 3, 2011

For when you hear a truly beautiful piece of music,

There is this poem:

Music (Anne Porter)

When I was a child
I once sat sobbing on the floor
Beside my mother's piano
As she played and sang
For there was in her singing
A shy yet solemn glory
My smallness could not hold

And when I was asked
Why I was crying
I had no words for it
I only shook my head
And went on crying

Why is it that music
At its most beautiful
Opens a wound in us
An ache a desolation
Deep as a homesickness
For some far-off
And half-forgotten country

I've never understood
Why this is so

But there's an ancient legend
From the other side of the world
That gives away the secret
Of this mysterious sorrow

For centuries on centuries
We have been wandering
But we were made for Paradise
As deer for the forest

And when music comes to us
With its heavenly beauty
It brings us desolation
For when we hear it
We half remember
That lost native country

We dimly remember the fields
Their fragrant windswept clover
The birdsongs in the orchards
The wild white violets in the moss
By the transparent streams

And shining at the heart of it
Is the longed-for beauty
Of the One who waits for us
Who will always wait for us
In those radiant meadows

Yet also came to live with us
And wanders where we wander. 

I love this kind of music. The kind that flies straight as an arrow into the pit of your stomach, settling there like a butterfly perched on a branch, the kind that you keep hearing in the most silent moments, when all you see is winter, and night, and quiet. When the world is hushed, this music is still singing.

A year ago, over the winter break, my friend and I made a winter vegetable pie and sat in front of the fire, talking about friendship and love, letting our imaginations romp through sharing a ramshackle house in England and Italy, to teaching together at a school, to our lives far into the future. And we had one song on repeat for most of the night, as we watched the fire leap and dance in its grate, as we watched the cold winter night settle into itself, as the quiet settled around us like a blanket.

The song, a piece called "Canzone Popolare" by Ludovico Einaudi, is the music Anne Porter is talking about. The ache of it sinks into your bones and you almost can't bear how beautiful it is. But you are also renewed, joyful at the promise of its beauty, the promise that an Italian piano composer can sit at his piano and create something.

The poem might seem melancholy to some - focused on the ache, the homesickness, the distance between us and what was meant to be in Paradise. But I hear instead the promise, the promise that the creativity we see around us is but a glimmer of what is yet to come. When all is restored, when all is redeemed, reclaimed, made new... what kind of music will we hear then? If this music haunts us because it echoes yearning, because we, like Gatsby, are running faster, and stretching our arms out farther... then how more wonderful is the promise that it holds. The ache promises more beauty, more creativity, more life. When you hear a truly beautiful piece of music, and you feel a small knot rise in your throat, and tears gather at the corner of your eyelids at the pure homesickness for the Kingdom - take heart. It is coming.

The thief cometh not but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. (John 10.10). 


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