Thursday, June 26, 2014

Under a Tuscan Sun

I was twenty-nine years old when the Arno flooded its banks on Friday 4 November 1966. According to the Sunday New York Times the damage wasn't extensive, but by Monday it was clear that Florence was a disaster. Twenty feet of water in the cloisters of Santa Croce, the Cimabue crucifix ruined beyond hope of restoration, panels ripped from the Baptistry doors, the basement of the Biblioteca Nazionale completely underwater, hundreds of thousands of volumes waterlogged, the Archivio di Stato in total disarray. On Tuesday I decided to go to Italy, to offer my services as a humble book conservator, to help in any way I could, to save whatever could be saved, including myself.
  From The Sixteen Pleasures (1995) by Robert Hellenga

I do not remember whether I had read that opening paragraph of the Robert Hellenga novel by the time of my 1996 visit to Florence. I had certainly seen Merchant and Ivory's A Room with a View (1985) and recognized the church of Santa Croce from the film's scene of a deadly fracas during which Lucy Honeychurch falls fainting into the arms of George Emerson.

My niece and her husband and their two little boys are now in Florence, “ensconced” (their word) in an apartment less than a block from Santa Croce. Thanks to Google, I am allowed a glimpse of the front door that they use whenever they return from a family walk under the Tuscan sun.

Meanwhile I get to be of some help to them here under a New England sun. Armed with keys and alarm code, I entered their townhouse last Tuesday evening for the first of several visits. I watered the plants that they had told me would all be collected on the kitchen table. A last-minute email from Italy had included a further request to check the floor around the dehumidifier in the basement. When I left, I was able to reassure them that water was where it should be.

And I am where I should be. A welcome challenge each of the past three summers has been to get enough water into a hanging basket of flowers outside the porch door of my apartment. I have learned what a New England sun can do if I neglect the watering can even one day.

Settling into June evenings inside my apartment, I frequently use martini glasses purchased in Florence back in 1996 when I am ready to pour from the cocktail shaker. Sometimes I sit with a friend across from bookshelves where a book showing Fra Angelico frescoes from the cloister of San Marco stands. I fall asleep each night within sight of a majolica tile that came home with me from Italy.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Communion Line

It will be time to stand up soon.

Sometimes close to an hour has passed before I get to move from my place in the pew on a Sunday morning. I have sat there and for stretches of time knelt and occasionally stood; I have sung hymns and listened to readings and recited the Nicene Creed; I have exchanged greetings with the other people in my pew and in the pews in front of me and behind.

I have gone through something similar most Sundays of my life. There was a time when my parents and my brothers were the people to the left or right of me in the pew. There were years when classmates from seminary flanked me. For most of my adult life, however, I have entered a church alone on Sunday morning.

On some occasions I have gotten to look out on the pews and the people in them from the vantage point of the sanctuary. When I perform the duties of a Eucharistic minister, I raise a host as each fellow parishioner steps forward in the communion line. It is something to see one face and then the next and then still another as the line moves toward me.

It is another experience to be in the line. Being in the line is my experience most Sundays these days.

To be in the line, I have to know when to stand up. I stay aware of the people who have been sitting to my left and to my right. Sometimes I have to step over their feet if they are not heading where I am going.

Stepping into the aisle, I may know the person ahead of me in line or I may not. I may know the person behind me or not. I do not need to know either. My glance can sweep over the people already returning to their pews after receiving communion. From the time I was a small child, however, I knew it was better not to let myself be distracted from what I was doing.

What am I doing? That was the stuff of many a grammar school religion class. The early instruction focused on how to hold my hands, at what pace to walk, where to look. Fifty years later I retain a sense that when I enter that aisle, I am joining a walk that is more than getting myself from one location in the church to another.

In recent months, I do not usually enter the aisle alone.

In recent months, I have learned what it feels like when I know a person wants to walk before me or behind me in just this line. In a few minutes, when we return to our places in the pew, we will each of us be aware that the walk was about more than our getting ourselves somewhere in the church and back.

The walk was about getting back to ourselves. Together.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Being Read To

I know I must have been read to on some occasion since I was a child.

I do not mean the kind of reading to which I listen most Sunday mornings when someone looks out over a lectern and shares the scripture passage assigned for that day’s service. Nor do I mean the reading by which a scholar in a lecture hall models for me and others the intonations best suited to unlock the message of a famous orator or poet.

No, for the old-fashioned kind of reading I mean, it will help to picture a Victorian parlor or rustic New England hearthside. Watch the scene unfold as one person, holding open a book or balancing it on her lap, reads while a companion rests his chin on his hand or perhaps closes his eyes, leans his head to the side and listens.

Being read to: it was one of the activities by which an individual during convalescence might pass the time with a minimum of fatigue. My own mind left to wander, however, and my strength of concentration nothing close to what it usually is, I would tire quickly of such bedside readers. I suspect I would even grow depressed imagining how fast I could have gotten through the same page or chapter on my own if I were only once again in the pink of health.

If I go to these examples, I am attempting to explain a kind of reading I am enjoying these days with a particular friend. Sharing a background in teaching and theology, we have taken to choosing books of reflection, spending some time during our visits reading a text aloud to one another. We alternate paragraphs, moving between reading and listening, keeping a steady rhythm, neither rushing nor indulging any excess of expressiveness.

We started with Father James Martin’s My Life with the Saints. We have just finished the opening chapter of Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor.

Neither of us proceeds under the misapprehension that the other could not understand the text perfectly well on his own. The experiment involves observing how making our way through a text with a companion in tow takes on for each of us a bit of the flavor of the companion’s emotional and spiritual journey. We listen and manage to hear more than the author’s words. We hear a friend when he does not get to choose the words by which he will communicate.

It is a subtle flavoring that I am talking about, to be sure. There are times, however, when I look up and wonder why I would not have asked for this pleasure before from other friends in my life.

I am enjoying being read to again.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

House Envy

I just listened to a new colleague tell a story about a conversation she had had last night with someone who lives, I was told, right next to the house I own on Cape Cod. In the course of their conversation my colleague had heard all about being invited over for drinks at my house. “And what a wonderful house it was!” She seemed happy to pass that compliment on to me.

I have no problem accepting compliments except that I do not own a house on the Cape.

I knew almost immediately the person I had been mistaken for – another colleague, complete with grey beard.

It had been hard to find a moment early in the narration of the conversation at which I could have interrupted. Instead I got to enjoy the look of slight envy that my new colleague leveled at me at the close of her story. I briefly imagined what it would feel like to be complimented on a beautiful house on the Cape. I remembered what it had felt like to accept compliments on a 1920 Arts and Crafts home I had co-owned until six years ago.

House envy.

Since I am no longer a homeowner of any stripe and since the prospect of ever being one again appears distant and unrealistic, I felt funny just now being mistaken for one. I have moved somewhere in my life, I understood afresh.

I mix with people on a daily basis who cannot imagine that move or the circumstances that would bring it about.

The truth is that I meet more and more people who can and do. Like mine, their status can remain long undetected. A door has, nonetheless, opened for them and for me. Just beyond it is a walkway into a future around which there are fewer guarantees but a certain kind of ease.

You do not know you want it until it appears.