(More than…) Two Years in Torino

"Le cose belle sono lente." –Pane e Tulipani

Category: spiritual growth

Habits for a new season of life

DSC_0165

Today’s lunch: squash soup with pancetta, and a salad with oil and balsamic vinegar. (The salad green is called valeriana in Italian, but I don’t think it’s the same as the herb valerian.) I’ll have some fruit, too.

Good morning! I have a lot more time to myself than I used to these days, and the circumstances are such that the most of things I always had in mind to do when the time came either aren’t an option any longer or no longer seem right. So, what to do? That’s the subject of this post. These are things that have worked for me, and I hope they might help someone else as well.

The first thing I say might sound abrupt, but that’s because I’m leaving out a big part my own period of adjustment on purpose. It’s this: I can’t just sit there and think, “Woe is me!” Sometimes big changes in life can come as a surprise and take some getting used to. There may be mourning to be done, relationships that need wisdom to handle, or a very blurry linguistic and cultural landscape to navigate. But I have noticed that any tiny steps I can make in a positive direction to tend to pay off eventually, even if I can’t see how it’s going to happen and it feels forced instead of pleasant. There has been genuine difficulty in my life over the past few years. But the best advice I got, at least for my circumstances, seems to have been, “Have a really hard cry for about ten minutes. Really give it over to God. Then get up and do something.”

So, in that spirit, here are some of the things I’ve been doing:

Meeting new people. I am used to making myself talk to people when I don’t feel like it. Yes, I’m an introvert. I’m even shy and easily embarrassed. And I fall on my face every time I try to speak Italian–I don’t even want to know how many mistakes I’m making or what rude things I unwittingly say! But I keep telling myself to get over it. I have found that many people have been willing to extend kindness and affection, even if I can’t speak well enough to easily forge close friendships. For this I am truly grateful. I have made friends with people of all ages and walks of life, and I trust that one day it will feel like I am really part of a community. But I won’t know if I don’t try, eh?

Good routines.  I notice that when I’m alone a lot, it’s easy to take the path of least resistance, so I’m trying to make sure I am disciplined. I read the Bible lectionary readings daily and have a regular prayer time. I make a to do list, and while I’m not driven by it, I do try to make progress with it. I try to eat attractive, healthy meals with a certain ceremony, as I do when I have family and friends around to serve. I ride my stationary bike, since I’m not close to a park. I walk a lot and use the stairs in my daily errands. I do housework and secretarial tasks, and balance between doing introspective activities and more expansive ones. Making sure I go out, and making time for friends, are part of this routine.

Putting out feelers. I don’t have a job right now, and I’m not sure what sort of job is appropriate and forthcoming at present. But I do think I have time for some purposeful activity that touches others, and so I try to take steps to figure out what this might be. I’ve talked to people in various programs, talked to people who might need art or English lessons, and I trust that putting out feelers will make the way clearer eventually, even if at first I go down some dead ends.

Getting outside myself. I love the merenda. And in general, I have remembered what I used to know well before I got so towed under, which is that looking other people in the eye and really listening to what they’re saying is a genuine pleasure, not just a duty and a means of charity. What a relief!

10660302_848284351863511_5812327637575696064_n

A recent New Yorker cartoon by David Sipress

Do goofball things that make you laugh! Sometimes when I find myself at home alone during the evening, I put on some old movie, whether in Italian or English, and I don’t worry about whether it’s a “smart” film or not. It helps that I’m beginning to be able to understand enough Italian that a whole new world is opening up. While walking around town, I take photos of clothes I’d never wear and play with the bokeh button on Instagram. I don’t care how lame it is!  I put smiley faces after my text messages 🙂 🙂 :-). I send Facebook stickers. And yes, I even watch cat videos! Yes, I know that art is ever moving, and not sentimental. But life is too short to be overly serious.

Seek God’s will. This is huge, too huge to describe here, and it includes all of the things above, of course. But I’ve sought intelligent guidance, and benefitted from it. Among other things, I’ve discovered a blog and radio program that I really like, hosted by Greg and Lisa Popcak. Here’s a recent radio program they did on forgiveness. (It’s long, but I really like what they said all the way through.)

I’ve looked at where I did things wrong in the past, and tried to change them. And since not every circumstance or relationship is entirely within my own power, there are a lot of things still up in the air. But that doesn’t mean I can’t live in God’s will. And as Peter Kreeft says, seeking God’s will wholeheartedly never fails to bring joy (not giddy happiness mind you, but joy.)

And so there you have a few things that a person who is a bit at sea in a new stage of life can do to make things better.  I know that a lot of my friends are going through similar things. They may still have children at home, but maybe they’ve sent their eldest off to college and are surprised to find themselves in mourning.  Maybe they’ve had to move when they didn’t want to. Maybe they are facing disappointment or difficulty with work or in relationships, or facing serious illness in themselves, friends, or family members. All of these are serious things that require acknowledgment and sympathy. But at some point, we all face that moment when we’re alone and we say to ourselves, “Okay, what now? How to start moving forward again?” That’s what this post is about.

The Passion and Resurrection According to St. John

 

It’s just after Easter.  So you’d think this wouldn’t be the time to be posting about a Passion, which is an oratorio depicting the events leading up to the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ.  But actually, it is the right time, because it takes a while to write a good Passion, and this one is for next year.

As you may know, Torino (Turin in both English and Piemontese) is the home of the Holy Shroud, which has obvious links to Easter. Every so often the Shroud is presented publicly, with people coming from all over to see it. Next Easter is to be one of those times, with Pope Francis in attendance and many local organizations planning to commemorate the event in some way. One such organization, the Confraternity of the Shroud, has commissioned Sarie’s boyfriend Alberto to write a Passion in a neo-Baroque style.

In the video, Alberto explains what he has been commissioned to do, how he will do it, and why he accepted the commission. The life of a young musician, especially in Italy, holds abundant opportunities to perform, but many fewer to get paid. As he explains in the video, the performing the Passion will require an orchestra, soloists, and a choir.  He has enough connections that a number of skilled musicians (including Sarie) will perform for free, but he’s still trying to raise enough to at least reimburse their travel expenses and make a quality recording of the performance.

If you or anyone you know would like to help make this project happen, there’s a link in the video for contributions. Feel free to link to this video or share it as well.  They’ll be raising funds for about the next 60 days, and they get a higher percentage of what people contribute if they make their goal.

The Little World of Don Camillo

 

Today I was eating lunch by myself and somehow got started watching Don Camillo excerpts on You Tube. I have just finished watching the entire DVD series of Don Camillo films, based on the books by Giovannino Guareschi. They are among my favorite films ever.

The plots are mostly based on the relationship of “frien-emies” Don Camillo, the local priest, and Giuseppe Bottazzi (nicknamed Peppone), the Communist mayor of the town of Brescello in Emilia Romagna during the years after WWII. It helps to know that after Fascism, a lot of Italians had had enough of not only Il Duce, but also the monarchy and priests. Thus they saw Communism as the new hope. I don’t know enough Italian history to comment on all this in detail, but in this series old-fashioned Italian sense of community and decency triumph over politics and revenge.

Why do I like Don Camillo? It’s hard to put it into words. To some American Christians the series might seem insurmountably foreign, even irreverent. Don Camillo is no saint. Like a small boy on the playground, his temper and sense of justice get him into almost daily fisticuffs (but he usually repents). A middle-aged-sounding Jesus talks to him, reprimands him, and at times jokes with him from a large wooden crucifix at the altar of the town church. At one point, Don Camillo loses his temper over a soccer game while talking to Jesus and kicks his hat straight into the confessional. “Goal!” shouts Jesus gleefully.

It might help Americans to see the series as the Italian version of Mayberry (or perhaps as the British think of Herriot’s All Creatures). It has a lot of the same appeal to Italians that Andy Griffith does to Americans. Despite serious ideological differences and even threats of violence, community and brotherly love (however imperfect) emerge as even stronger forces. Don Camillo, despite his cassock, is a man’s man, a former partisan who fought beside Peppone during the War (the real-life Don Camillo survived a concentration camp). He is brave, funny and even lovable under his pugnacious exterior. And finally, the series is very well made, with comedy and more serious elements blended seamlessly and un-self-consciously, often in the same scene.

The clip above, probably one of the more serious scenes of the entire series, is a good example of this blending of humor with courage, and of brotherhood overcoming partisanship.  I also posted it because it seemed appropriate for Good Friday, the river to be blessed is our own Po, and because it’s one of the few YouTube clips I could find with English subtitles.

Buon film!

Bells

 

I walk by the church in the photo above most Sunday mornings, and sometimes I happen to walk by at just the right time to hear the bells ring. They go on for quite a while and fill several blocks with their sound.

Our parish church has a carillon instead. It got about a halftone off sometime last year and ever since the jaunty little three-note tune has sounded comi-tragic. There’s actually an expression in Italian, “Stonato come una campana.” It means, “As out of tune as a church bell.”

Church bells make me inexplicably happy. And lest I start to sound as obsessed as Sarie already knows I am, the Don Camillo theme is also based on church bells.

The power of narrative in the imperfect life

There’s an article from Relevant Magazine that’s making its way around Facebook right now, called “Stop Instagramming Your Perfect Life.”  In it, the author makes an impassioned plea for real community rather than carefully-crafted images of the perfect life. She keeps hearing people say things like the following:

“I stopped following a friend on Instagram, and now that I don’t see nonstop snapshots of her perfect life, I like her better.”

And then she adds:

Yikes. This is a thing. This is coming up in conversation after conversation. The danger of the internet is that it’s very very easy to tell partial truths—to show the fabulous meal but not the mess to clean up afterward. To display the smiling couple-shot, but not the fight you had three days ago. To offer up the sparkly milestones but not the spiraling meltdowns.

I liked some things about this article. I agree with the parts about admitting that you have weaknesses (in a general way), the part about realizing the limitations of Facebook or Pinterest, and the part about building real community offline (please do!). But documenting in detail the messes, the fights, and the spiraling meltdowns? I’m just not going to do that. And I’d like to talk about why.

Before I do that, one thing I have to get out of the way is the limitations of Facebook. It doesn’t even allow detailed documentation. It gives me a very superficial connection with various friends and relatives that I might not hear from otherwise, and sometimes it gives me a good laugh or a pause for thought, as with this article. But on Facebook, if you type more than a line or two, you are in danger being socially inappropriate. It favors the witty quip to the nuanced thought, and no one looks at an album with more than five photos in it. How much community can you build with that? How can you even connect your own thoughts on Facebook?

Blogs offer at least a little more. When I started my first blog, it was because I wanted to practice writing and to exchange ideas, and didn’t want my audience to feel obligated to respond, as they might do if I were a personal friend or family member. Looking back, I think that blog succeeded in what it was supposed to do. A lot of it was just vignettes about homeschooling, life in New York City, and some reactions to articles. But it wasn’t supposed to be a substitute for real life community any more than Facebook was.  And here are some other things my blogs are not:

My blogs have never, ever been a source of advice. If you get something useful out of one of my blog posts, fine.  But I don’t assume anyone who reads has enough of the context of my life to imitate what I’m doing, if they ever wanted to–which I doubt!  Our circumstances are rather unusual in several ways.

When reading my blog, I also assume that everyone realizes our life has its ups and downs. I would definitely consider my posts to be a highlight reel. I keep this blog sort of like a narrative scrapbook. When I’m taking the photos that go in a scrapbook (paper or virtual), sometimes life is not so pleasant. But when I look back at what I’ve put down, I’m often encouraged.  I realize that good things did happen during that period.  And hopefully I, or someone in our family, made the effort to create memories.  Memory-making is something you have to make an effort to do.

There’s another reason I try to keep this blog positive: Negativity spirals. Thinking about life’s difficulties and what might happen because of them really can deepen them. I have learned this through experience. During the past couple of years, a lot of things have been changing rapidly in our family. Some of these things have been quite challenging, and I don’t have the foggiest idea how they’re going to turn out. Just to give myself a reality check, I’ve occasionally written about them in my journals.  But even there, once I acknowledge that I’m not imagining things, I often end up tearing out what I write, because I realize the power that my own narrative holds. Instead I cry out to the Lord in the manner of the Psalms, and then I try for all I’m worth to make the wisest decisions I can and to forgive and accept forgiveness. Faith requires a certain effort on my part to keep focused on the Lord. And I do have plenty of blessings in my life, for which I am thankful. Just forget the glamorous expat stereotype.

And finally, I have to protect the privacy of the other people I blog about. That’s simple enough.

In short, the blog format simply won’t permit the sort of intimacy that allows for real community, and I assume people know that. It still doesn’t stop me from appreciating your blogs if you have them, enjoying your comments on mine, and looking forward to making more posts. If you’re a great photographer or have a gift for writing, I appreciate your art. If you have come through specific difficulties and have great advice for others, I appreciate that too. And I must say that most of the people I know both online and in real life are pretty much the same both places. But with my own blog, I mostly just do quick sketches of what’s going on, because frankly, nothing else feels right to me.

One last thought: There may even be a few people out there whose lives seem to be resumé perfect, online and off.  In that case, I can only say two things:

No one’s life is always like that.

And if it were, are these the people you’d turn to in a pinch?

Now, feel free to go enjoy someone’s highlight reel if you like.  But don’t think for a minute that it’s their whole story.

The eucatastrophe at the center of the world

c5712-07a

Historiated initial ‘R'(esurrexi) with the Resurrection, angels supporting heraldic arms to the left, in a Missal. Origin: Germany.  Public domain image from The British Library.

In his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien explains why fairy tales are so deeply satisfying and, far from being escapist, are instead spiritually realistic. His language isn’t easy to follow, but it’s worth sticking with it. He starts out by defining a fairy-tale as a eucatastrophe, or a tale with a sudden favorable resolution:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of…the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale); this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive.’ In its fairy-tale–or otherworld–setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace; never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure; the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.

The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth…But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in brief vision that the answer may be greater–it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt-making creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature.  The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.  They contain many marvels–peculiarly artistic, beautiful and moving; ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe.  But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.  The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history.  The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.  The story begins and ends in joy.  It has pre-enimently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be ‘primarily’ true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed…The joy would have exactly the same qualiy, if not the same degree, as the joy which the ‘turn’ in a fairy-story gives; such joy has the very taste of primary truth.  (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks…to the Great Eucatrastrophe.  The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous.  But this story is supreme, and it is true.  Art has been verified.  God is the Lord, of angels, and of men–and of elves.  Legend and History have met and fused.

The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the ‘happy ending.’ The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all this bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.

How very satisfying. Happy Easter!

Waiting for Easter

DSC_1473

Seems my mind doesn’t know what an easy winter is anymore.  So I’m implementing the gratitude cure as strongly I can.  Here are some of the things I’m grateful for:

Narcissus bulbs glowing in the late afternoon sunlight (see above)

Old C. S. Lewis favorites, such as “The Weight of Glory.” 

Listening to free music on Spotify, such as Antonio Bertali and Guillaume Dufay.

Occasional crystal clear days during which it appears that one can see every snow-covered crevice in the Alps from the end of C.so Matteotti (and other avenues).

My new Italian class, twice per week.  I’m going to speak this language!

The appearance of early spring fruits and vegetables, such as strawberries, favas, and even a little asparagus, at the outdoor markets.

Sarie’s Sibelius concerto practice sessions.  And talks (not necessarily about Sibelius).

Regular exercise. If nowhere else, on a stationary bike.

My new, inexpensive bistro table by the kitchen door.  It’s my new favorite place to sit for my morning devotions, and best of all, it draws more people into the isolated kitchen.  (See below)  Thanks for taking me to the store, Rachelle!

New herbs on the balcony.  (See same photo below)

Every single friend who has invited me somewhere or prayed with me during the past two weeks.

That the Lord has demonstrated his love for us, decisively, in sacrificial action beyond what I can ask or imagine.  May my mind be better able to comprehend this unfathomable love and translate it into actions of my own.

DSC_1466

Ink musicians

img-130316184334-001I’ve been doodling again.  These guys are from the Utrecht Psalter, and although it says they illustrate Psalm 149 (I checked the Latin text), I think these particular figures go with 150.  “Praise him with the sound of the trumpet.”  As Sarie said, “That looks more like a hunting horn to me.”  It almost looks like a shofar.

I just love their hunched shoulders, Dr. Seuss hands, agitated drapery, and expressive gestures.  Look at the group of three on the right.  Their curious expressions crack me up!  The Utrecht Psalter is full of illustrations like these, in a similar Carolingian style to the Ebbo gospels.

As for my technique, it’s still not nearly where I’d like it to be.  I’m still drawing in a Moleskine journal (thus the grid), and I did these in a combination of thick and thin fountain pens, augmented by a few brush strokes.  I suspect I need to be working on vellum, with a longer brush or quill or some sort.  My attempts don’t capture the easy grace of the original, but I’ll keep trying.

Regarding the incongruous notes in the top right corner, I was listening to a Tim Keller sermon from the Redeemer free sermons link and kept spontaneously taking notes as I worked.  The sermon was on Psalm 88, one of two Psalms in the Bible that doesn’t end on a hopeful note.  But the fact that it’s in the Psalter shows that God understands; he knows how we talk when we’re desperate.

There’s a great quote about Sam Gamgee in that sermon, too.

February

DSC_1414

This morning I was cleaning up the kitchen and listening to a lecture on You Tube.  Oh, you know me–it was Tim Keller talking about The Crossing of the Red Sea as a metaphor for salvation. I was, as I am so often lately, alone, and know I will be for the entire day, except when I go out and buy food for dinner. But since my Italian is limited, so is my conversation.

As I was putting on a second cup of coffee, Dr. Keller got to the part about the crossing proper (about 35:00 into the video).  There’s a wall of water on the left, and a wall of water on the right, and the Israelites start crossing.  Some of them are confident to the point of cockiness: “The Lord is on our side!  Eat your heart out, Egyptians!” and they swagger across.  Others are looking at the walls of water (maybe thinking about the physics they learned while building pyramids) and thinking, “I’m gonna die I’m gonna die I’m gonna die…!” But of course the point is, they get across.

I know which one I am, temperamentally-speaking—the latter. Whether the proximate cause is February, too many mid-life changes and reminders that the world is broken, or a mild chemical glitch, I don’t know. It could be worse, I’m sure, but there are days when all my best counsel, which I truly believe, doesn’t make a dent in my mood.  And what I like even less is the effect of my moods on others.

On Sunday, a chance conversation with my pastor got me reading about the poet Cowper. William Cowper was an 18th C. poet, a friend of John Newton’s who not only wrote the well-known Olney hymns, but he was also an early-Romantic inspiration to Wordsworth and Coleridge.  Yet he was orphaned, bullied, forbidden to marry his first love, and though he became a Christian, he was haunted his whole life by fear of damnation.  After his wife Mary Unwin died, he sank into a depression from which he never recovered.

Does this mean he didn’t believe the gospel?  Not from what I can tell. More likely he had clinical depression, brought on by his early traumas or his genetic makeup.  “Oh! with what a surprise of joy,” wrote Newton a few days after Cowper’s death, “would he find himself immediately before the throne, and in the presence of his Lord! All his sorrows left below, and earth exchanged for heaven.”

So when I heard Dr. Keller talking about the fearful Israelites, I laughed out loud.  Alone, in my kitchen.  Because if my witness depended on my faith, and on my mood, it would be in big trouble: I collapse under a lot less pressure than Cowper. But it doesn’t depend on my faith; it depends on the object of my faith, God in Jesus. Good heavens, what a relief! And yes, I knew that, but it was good to get a reminder.

Now, that said, the sun is out for the first time in days.  I’ve made my confession.  Now I’m going to the market, to do the next thing.