Tornadoes, Tragedy, and Trying to make Sense of it All

The images of the tornadoes are there, displayed at somebody else’s expense, an unfortunate testimony to the fact that we humans are morbidly curious. The dangerous weather events that caused such devastation in Oklahoma and Texas have left tragedy in their wake, and newspeople can’t quit showing it and talking about it, and we can’t look away. There are a lot of reasons we look at the news coverage when other people are devastated. We are somber over other peoples’ loss, and concerned about survivors. We are curious about people we know in the affected areas, and wonder how they are. We hope for survivors in the wreckage, and grieve over those who didn’t. We see dazed, heartbroken victims, anxious relatives, and aerial views of what must be worse than a war zone. The wreckage from the tornadoes is otherworldly, like something out of a movie, but full of details only reality could provide. Cars have been twisted and tossed like little toys; houses, businesses, street signs and landmarks are all just gone, leaving nothing behind but trash covered slabs and debris-strewn fields that used to be neighborhoods just like ours. Victims have lost possessions, vehicles, photos and heirlooms, personal belongings, shoes, cell phones, computers, homes, everything. As a result, people are glued to television and the internet, listening to stories, looking at images of utter destruction from the deadly tornadoes.

Some just gawk, relieved it wasn’t them. Some try to learn about safety, playing “what if” scenarios in their heads and evaluating potential survival strategies should such a thing happen to them. Some are motivated by the tragic scenes of ground zero to respond, to offer help. People outside the boundaries of the tragedy analyze it, break it down, and speculate about how it happened, and why. Survivors within the tragedy are struck by the randomness of it all, and are grateful for God’s protection and their good fortune. A quick scan of Facebook shows several themes about the deadly tornadoes and the destruction they left in their wake in Moore, in Cleburne, in Granbury… Some thank God for his blessing, because they or their possessions were spared; many express grief or sympathy, or provide what they hope is helpful information; and there are posts saying that schools were damaged as a result of God’s judgment: since we have taken Him out of schools, He has not protected them from natural disaster. Questions arise out of the wreckage. Did God cause this storm? Did he select certain homes for destruction while blessing others by leaving them intact? Did He judge elementary school children for the fact that we have separation of church and state?
How can a loving God allow this to happen? A couple of observations:
1. Under the vast umbrella of God’s sovereignty, in the same place he allows us choice about what house to buy, what food to eat, who to fall in love with, there is a provision for human will, for cause and effect. Solomon said, “I have seen something else under the sun: the race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant, or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” Because we have the ability to make choices, we live in a world that is subject to the vagaries of cause and effect, of time and chance. Ultimately, yes, God allowed the environment that leaves room for tornadoes, and they fall under His domain; but the storms happen because we live with choices in a fallen world. Wouldn’t a loving God cause such tragedies to cease? He only would if He was going to circumvent our ability to choose, and He loves us too much to do that. I certainly believe in God’s sovereignty, and that all things happen within His will. I might concede that God does intervene in this world to exert His will at times, but I also believe He allows random things to happen because He loves us enough to let us make choices.
2. Is God’s blessing indicated by survival? I want to tread lightly here, because I would not presume to know all about God’s blessing, or to dispute with anyone who felt that they had received blessing from God. But a couple of things: if God blessed those who survived, does that necessarily mean He cursed those who didn’t? It’s hard to have one without the other. Perhaps we need to recalibrate our assumptions about blessing. God’s blessing is not found in material things, it is not found in prosperity, and it may or may not be indicated by survival. What if God’s blessing is just His presence and His peace? What if it comes from His being with us in the midst of tragedy, rather than His protecting us from harmful events? God’s blessing could exist then in every outcome, not just the ones that favor us circumstantially. We could find His blessing everywhere, and encounter His supernatural peace and presence in the wreckage of natural disasters, in difficulty and disease, as well as in seasons of prosperity and good fortune. Don’t hesitate to thank God for blessing us with love, health, and possessions; but don’t fail to thank Him for blessing us within devastation, loss, and grief. Paul wrote to Timothy that he encountered trials and tribulation at Antioch, Iconium, and Derbe, but was delivered out of all of them. Sure enough, in Acts we read that Paul discovered and escaped from plots to execute him in Antioch and Iconium. However, at Derbe he was stoned by an angry mob and left for dead. (yes, he was struck repeatedly by large, heavy rocks until he was battered and bruised and assumed dead) Apparently Paul’s definition of deliverance is different than mine. What he knew, and what he taught is that sometimes God’s deliverance (blessing) is FROM the stones; sometimes, it is THROUGH the stones.
3. Did God judge elementary school kids for the fact that we have taken Him out of schools? This is almost too ignorant an assumption to address, but the short answer is “no, He didn’t.” In Luke 13, Jesus is asked if some Galileans who had been killed by Pilate deserved to die. He asked, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” He extends the example to an accident in which the Tower of Siloam fell on unsuspecting bystanders. Jesus uses tragedy to teach that for every one of us, the harsh lessons of life should call us to evaluate ourselves, to be accountable, and to humbly repent before God. But he clearly says that the victims of these tragic events were not selected because of their sin. When bad things happen, we should turn to God.
4. If God cares about us, why are there tornadoes? Why does He allow such tragedy? I think there are lots of ways to approach this, but I will choose one: God’s concern for us is not contained in the prevention of tragedy, but in His participation in it. He is not some cosmic Being, sitting majestically removed from us in the heavens, He is “god-with-us”, who humbled Himself, suffered the death on the cross, and as God the Father had to experience the loss of His own child when He could have stopped Jesus’ suffering at any time. The fact that Jesus lived on in resurrection does not diminish his pain and anguish on the cross one teeny bit; and God’s own power and glory did not prevent him from feeling every bit as loving and protective towards His son as any parent would. Yet His love for us was such that He did not intervene, and He cared about us enough to absorb personal tragedy of the darkest kind. God’s empathy is not phony, and His ability to walk with us in the dark times is not based on whimsy or fiction. He really does understand, and He knows everything there is to know about loss and pain. He also knows about redemption and peace. I would add that the finite circumstances we see may be outweighed by the glory of the infinite outcomes we don’t see. For those innocent victims we see in tragedy, God may have infinite outcomes we will only see when all ends are revealed. We assume in our grief that loss of life is the worst thing that can happen; it may be perhaps the doorway to the best thing that can happen.

We are praying for you guys in Oklahoma, and for you guys on Facebook, and for whomever has to deal with the tornadoes that come. May you find the blessing of God’s presence no matter what the circumstances.

To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Devotions-Ordinary-Guy/dp/1535457392/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-1&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread

For the Kindle Edition, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Bo-Jackson-ebook/dp/B01K5Z0NLA/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-2&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread

Being Home

We have been working in the backyard today, and it is a week since we left Cortona. What a change in seven days! People all week have been asking about our trip (and, to be honest, some of them have gotten to hear all about it without even asking!), and I have said, “you know those big events that you anticipate for a long time, that carry the burden of high expectations, that you hope to be ‘once in a lifetime’ events? Well, our trip to Italy was in that category, a “bucket list” kind of adventure–long awaited, expensive, and unique. We expected a lot from it, and it was actually BETTER than we expected.” I am honestly surprised that I can say that, but it’s true– Going to Rome and then Tuscany was somewhat magical, a once in a lifetime experience. Several things contributed to its achieving that lofty status, and I have described some of them here. Our traveling companions were gracious and enjoyable; the fellowship of traveling together was comfortable and entertaining. Our Facebook pages have reflected our enjoyment of both the journey and the fellowship, with pictures and wistful reflections on how great our trip was. And it was! Our travel went smoothly, our guides were knowledgable and helpful, our drivers were professional and friendly. We saw the city and the countryside, the volcanic hills and the coast, the majestic duomo and the humble Le Celle. We learned about culture and cooking, about legends and miracles. The accommodations were remarkably good, the cuisine was world-class, and experiencing the multi-layered history of Italy with its incredible architecture, art, and antiquities will be something I will enjoy, reflect on, and carry with me to the end of my days. But now we are home, and I have been out digging in the backyard. And I have to say, as good as our trip to Italy was, it is even better to be home. How can that be? There are a couple of reasons: 1. The relationships intertwined with our travel will not end with our vacation, and they will exist now with greater connection and vibrancy based on the experiences we shared. There are things from Italy that Nancy and I now share that draw us closer, even as our direct connection with Italy recedes a bit, which brings me to #2: our lives back here at home have been slightly altered. We will cook a bit differently, decorate a bit differently, and perhaps even think a bit differently thanks to Tuscany. We have brought home from Italy much more than some ceramic pieces for the kitchen, or balsamic glaze, or scarves or leather goods or nick-knacks with which to decorate. There is a Tuscan sensibility that has come home with us, that seasons our reflections and conversation, that tempts us from Frances Mayes’ cookbook in the kitchen, that calls us to cleaner cooking with more local, natural ingredients, that influences how we now see our backyard, and how we will spend the next season of life. It will be evident in many subtle aspects of life, from the olive oil we will use to the snappy straw hat I now own. Going to Italy was a trip of a lifetime, but so is coming home. And the wonderful fact about both of those events is that each one enhances the other. I loved traveling to Italy, and it helped me to appreciate life here at home even more than I did before; and while I love being home, I am now just a little bit more Italian than I was before. Both of those states will contribute to a fuller, richer understanding of and participation in life. May your travels bring you to such a place!

Eating, Italian style

autogrill_1000Italian truck stop

Like the number of paintings on the ceiling of the Vatican, the culinary delights of Italy have been presented to us so abundantly and so often that we are overwhelmed. They just keep coming, one piled on top of the other until my senses are no longer reacting properly to the opportunities before them. Food in Tuscany was just not like food in America. To put things in perspective, our original itinerary called for a stop in Orvieto to eat on the way from Rome to Cortona. Schedule constraints apparently didn’t allow for the four course meal referenced in our trip planner, and we pulled off to take a quick break at AutoGrill, an Italian roadside rest area. Since by this time we had grown pretty accustomed to four course meals, we were pretty disappointed that we weren’t getting into Orvieto for lunch. So we trooped into the Gas Station to see what we could find. Rather than the Subway or McDonald’s or day-old sandwiches one might find in the US, Autogrill had an espresso bar, a panini station with fresh-made sandwiches pressed to perfection, a salad bar with fresh fruits and vegetables, a pasta bar with several types of homemade pasta, and a grill to serve up beef or veal, cooked on the spot however you like it…there are grilled patatas and carrots, and all manner of other items to complete our lunch. The fragrance of light garlic, sweet grilled onions, and coffee waft over the racks of chips and gum and candy, beckoning us to try one food station or another. We make our selections, with members of our group getting everything from wine and cheese to prime rib to fresh pasta and ravioli. The grilled carrots and the potatoes are excellent. As we eat, our disappointment over not stopping in Orvieto dissipates, and as we compare our menu selections, sampling from others’ plates, it’s official: food at a truck stop in Italy is better than a lot of Italian restaurants in America. In Rome, we fell in love with gelato and began adjusting to the Italian tempo for eating, getting acquainted with not peas, but with the “p’s” of culinary Italy: Prosciutto, peccorino, paninis, pasta, parmesan, pairings, panna cotta, and patience. Meals are savored, not in the wham-bam American way, but more like a time spent lingering over your lover with sweet kisses and conversation. Our time in Rome, more restaurant oriented, less familial than our stay in Tuscany, only prepared us for our time in the country. Although we didn’t realize it, we needed some transition time to prepare us for Tuscan food, much the way divers need to decompress on their way to the surface. Had we jumped right into the food at our villa, there might have been some sensory overload that would have actually limited what we could eat there. As it was, we were able to ease towards gastronomic excess like finely tuned Olympians coming to the games. The Villa Laura schedule and meals have not only surpassed my expectations but have pushed back the boundaries of my food fantasies. I have been on cruises where I could order 3 appetizers and 3 entrees if I wished, but I have never eaten this quality of food, this much, this often before. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never before in the field of cooking have so many cooked so much that was eaten by so few. The Villa Laura brought in two sets of chefs to prepare our meals, probably because of the sheer impossibility of one set being able to perform the pure physical labor of cooking for our group alone. There is Francesco and Christiano, two young Italian chefs who learned to cook from their grandmothers. They don’t look like chefs in the sense that they are buff and seem very young to have so much experience in their profession. But man, can they cook! Francesco has most of the English, and he tells us on request about how they watched their grandmothers and mothers cook, then worked in the family olive business (so of course they grow and press their own olive oil, which they claim is absolutely the best in the world), and who learned their craft in restaurants before starting their own business, catering and cooking. I’d say they are no less than world-class Tuscan chefs. Then there is Terracina, who we all call Mama, a pleasant, happy woman who has brought her daughter and her daughter’s friend to staff our kitchen. Mama is, if possible, probably an even better cook than Francesco and Christiano. She doesn’t speak much English, but we all fall in love with her instantly, enjoying her sunny disposition, her hard work, and her luscious culinary delights. Her bread salad and panna cotta were some of the best things I have ever tasted. So it is a Tuscan tag-team of chefs gone wild, each presenting us with dishes made from local produce and ingredients in “typical” Tuscan fashion. For breakfast, there is always coffee, homemade bread, various kinds of cheese, eaten with homemade jam or preserves, yogurt, fresh granola, fruit, juice, and breakfast pastries. At dinner we feast on bruschetta, artichokes blessed with parmesan, zucchini soup, fava beans made several ways, several kinds of cheese, and all sorts of delicious, melt-in-your-mouth homemade pasta and ravioli. There is bread salad, balsamic glaze, roast and grilled meat (beef, chicken, pork medallions–rumored to be perfect for late night snacks, 28 seconds in the microwave–and one night even a little rabbit!). We had wood-oven pizza, spelt, stuffed zucchini, and a souffle or two. There is creamy, delicious panna cotta, and a couple of kinds of tiramisu. We had the reknowned Chianina beef, which is presented with a certificate detailing the cow’s birth date and date of death. I really didn’t want to know that my cow’s name had been Matilda, but she still tasted very good. The famed bistecca alla Fiorentina, a big T-bone cooked rare, was delicious, although I’d have to be honest and say that Texas beef is pretty dang good by comparison. Buddy might say that the pork medallions in Italy are superior to ours, but the beef–while good– did not just blow our doors off. There is a bit of wine partaken with every meal, usually a local vintage in red AND white(and of course, I am only describing our average LUNCH here). We had biscotti dipped in Vin Santo. We tried grappa. We drank prosecco(ha! another “p”!). Sadly, I was not a wine connoisseur before going to Italy, but I can honestly say that I now know far more about how wine can complement a meal than I did before. I can also honestly say I probably drank more wine over the last two weeks than the rest of my life put together. I did NOT, however, drink enough to diminish the memory of the amazing tastes of our Tuscan vacation. I wish that my words could do justice to the cuisine of Tuscany, because the local, natural culinary delights we experienced there were a huge part of our immersion into the culture and flavor of the region. I can only describe the pure impact of Villa Laura’s gourmet meals by reverting to a final “p”, which succinctly provides a summary of the fact that Italy has stayed with us, how we have brought home delicious memories of Tuscany, how we are reminded daily of all the wonderful things we got to eat there. That “p” word: pants. I can’t get in ’em anymore.

Observations on Italy

As you drive to Tuscany from Rome, you pass through lush green hillsides and rich farmland. The hills vary from gently rolling to steep-cliffed formations that hearken back to volcanic activity, visible in the abrupt formations of rock that later submitted to the almost tropical growth that flourishes in the temperate climes. As you look either west or east as you take A1 northward, there are scenic hillside retreats dotted with Olive trees and vineyards, and fields of grain or grass… These fields are almost all surveyed by a villa or some larger dwelling placed at the top of a hill, looking down upon them protectively. In the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union held “good ground”, or defensive positions that were elevated above the infantry that would try to dislodge them. Historically, having such a position, above would-be attackers, provides tactical advantages and makes defenders stronger and less vulnerable. Everywhere you look in rural Italy, villas, churches, monasteries, and forts are built on ‘good ground’, providing a haven for those who worked the farms and vineyards surrounding them. As we toured Tuscany, we often remarked on the cities on the hills, the beautiful scenic villas overlooking their domains, and the old towers that dotted the volcanic landscape. Their presence spoke of protection and defensive strength.
In Rome, there is an ancient city Wall that rises majestically around its antique center, protecting the ruins of the Forum, the Colisseum, and the parthenon. It is a marvel of engineering and construction, using techniques that would be considered brilliant by today’s standards, much less those in use 2000 years ago. The wall seems to be about 5 stories high (actually 8-10 meters) and is 4-5 meters thick. There are several different sections of the wall, some dating back to 378 b.c., some built well into the Christian era. Walls were built to defend the city from hordes of marauders who roamed Europe in those days, pillaging and plundering all who lay in their voracious path.
One of my strongest impressions from having toured Tuscany and Rome is that man has been a violent, brutish, greedy animal. The people who lived there in bygone eras really, really needed to defend themselves. They were invaded enough to know that they needed to live, sleep, and work on ‘good ground’. Violence could come upon them at any time, and it was worth the amazing amount of cost and labor it took to build protective walls, and to live within or around defensive positions that may have been hard to build, or inconvenient to get water to, or even to get to at night, but which might just save their lives if they were suddenly attacked. The beautiful Tuscan countryside, with old towers and ancient steeples dotting the tops of rocky aeries or balanced along the cliffs, is actually a fortress style testimony to the historic greed and violence of man. For much of our history, men have simply taken what they want by using violence or the abuse of power, without really caring who might be harmed in the taking. One might hope that today, in such an advanced age of social evolution, men are beyond such things, that we are not capable of this kind of evil anymore… but it is entirely possible that the human heart has not changed all that much in 2000 years. The holocaust was only 68 years ago. There may be different ways to try to take things today (such as picking pockets in Rome, or sending bogus emails trying to get suckers to fall for a scam, or stealing someone’s identity online), but men are still greedy, and there is still violence. While our modern weaponry has made good ground less effective, and has rendered large walls somewhat obsolete, the beautiful scenes of Tuscan villas and churches set upon the hills remind us of a long history of greedy violence. I know, it’s definitely a “glass half-empty” kind of observation, but seeing so many towers and villas and forts and churches occupying ‘good ground’ made it difficult for me to see the lovely pastoral landscape without acknowledging the grittier reality behind it. There were some mean people in the world back in the day; and although methods have changed, and those villas and churches are now safe from imminent attack by marauding hordes, there are still mean, greedy people in the world today. Evil is not limited to to the past, and protection will not come from position. Until we begin some kind of construction within the human heart, all the forts and walls in Tuscany will not protect what we value most.

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Leaving Villa Laura

It is a cool, perfect morning in Tuscany. The pale blue sky has been accented with wisps of clouds by some Artist’s technique that surpass even those of Michelangelo and Botticelli. Birds are singing cheerfully, for they will be staying home in Tuscany to revel in the blooms and rebirth of Springtime in Cortona. It’s interesting, the way the birds sing because it fits the atmosphere so perfectly– their melodious songs are not shrill or in conflict, but they seem to be designed to enhance the air of tranquility that we breathe here each morning. Each call hangs gracefully in the air as it blesses the ear, then leaves spaces for an answering complimentary series of notes that sing, “peace, peace” to all who listen. The first thing I saw out the window this morning was Buddy and Susan’s luggage out in front on the Villa, awaiting the driver taking them to catch a train to Rome. For some reason the sight of Buddy’s snappy straw hat sitting on top of the bags in the driveway accentuates my sadness over leaving. Each day he has announced a winner of the “hat contest”, of which he is the originator and for which he has been the sole judge. The judges’ decision each day has been dictatorial and final, and to be honest, somewhat capricious. I do not denigrate the hat contest because I never won a single day, nor do I second guess the judge’s decisions… But it was clear, as we waited breathlessly for the results to be announced each day, that I was going to finish at the bottom of the hat wearers, foiled each time by some small detail or new entrant. And one day, actually, my HAT won, but alas! I had loaned it to Brian that day… In the last announcement for the hat contest last night, after our Tuscan cooking class, Buddy announced the results of the final day, retiring the trophy to the Smiths, who had won three times. But then he added a “sportsmanship” award, given to the participant who, although he lacked talent, size, or speed, continued to compete with others better equipped and worthier than he. Imagine (as our Italian guides have said, Ih-MAY-gine) my surprise when I won! The prize was a straw hat Buddy bought from a street vendor in Pompeii, which I will treasure. The hat contest was just one of Buddy’s contributions to our trip, which was not only about Italy but was also about fellowship. We have a fairly diverse group who came together to explore Tuscany, and it has been fun to get to know them. Traveling in a larger group (even one full of Christian folks) can be dramatic or exasperating, but this band of tourists has honestly been a delight. The Villa Laura has been a place effective at promoting good conversation and goodwill. Francesco and Christiano, our chefs who were originally taught by their grandmothers, gave us a cooking lesson last night. After finishing our pizza and tiramisu, our group went into the Chapel and sang some hymns. Many of us had sung in choirs, or just sung in the shower, but as we sang together, magic happened. Harmonies were captured and interwoven, choruses were blended ethereally, and for a few minutes we were the songbirds of Villa Laura, complete with complimentary melodies that lifted us out of that chapel into other realms. For a few minutes, we were blessed with a very small glimpse of heaven, where our happy, harmonious voices will be lifted together in praise. I am not an artificially devout man (probably am not devout enough for lots of Christians who are), but those minutes we spent singing some great hymns of the past together in the chapel will stay with me as inspiration and encouragement. I know today’s modern churches have left hymns behind in favor of more contemporary sound, but I’m just gonna say it here: they have lost something important, and they don’t even know how much they are missing! It is sad to leave greatness behind. Seeing Buddy and Susan’s luggage reminds me that they are leaving to catch a train to Rome. From what we have learned about traveling in Italy, this is bound to be an adventure. Our eclectic band of fellow travelers will all be starting new adventures today, but I take solace in my last time hearing the songbirds of Villa Laura, knowing that as sad as it is to leave greatness behind, it is awesome to know beyond a doubt that there are even greater adventures ahead.

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It’s Mother’s day again

I was born on Mother’s Day, 1954. People always say “how sweet”, and I know in some ways it was, but I imagine it was something of an ordeal for my Mama. When I was born in Wilford Hall at Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio, my dad was off training to fly jets, and my mother told me numerous times how close to death I was at birth, how I had been saved for a reason. Today, as I enjoy a morning in Tuscany, I am still sorting out what that reason might be. But I was an RH baby, which is something relatively minor and treatable before babies who have it are delivered today, but which apparently was pretty major 59 years ago. They had to transfuse her blood into me, and she always said that they told her I wasn’t going to make it more than once, but that I pulled through only by a miracle. I also had a double hernia, along with some other issues, and what it added up to was a long, long Mother’s Day for Myrl. She was energetic and spunky, though, and we made it. Myrl Jean Zuercher was born in 1932, and was adopted by Fay and Emmett Zuercher. She was cute and vivacious, a cheerleader who was named Football Sweetheart for the Alamo Heights mules. Years later she could still get into her cheerleading uniform. She was nick-named “Speedy” in high school because she drove fast or liked to party. She was artistic and funny. Perhaps because Mama struggled with alcoholism, particularly later in life (she died from liver failure/psirrhosis in 1984), I have probably focused too much on her demons and issues, and I used to think that she perhaps didn’t love me because there were times I couldn’t depend on her. But I know now that she loved me the very best that she could. I have never really given her credit for the many wonderful things she brought to my life– love and family, laughter and personality. She was almost 53 when she died, not long after holding my first daughter, and she left us too soon. I used to resent having to share my birthday with Mother’s Day every few years, but now I know it’s an honor. This year I am sharing my birthday with Italy, and not Mother’s Day, but I am thinking of you, Mama, and will raise a glass of wine not just in your memory but in your honor. Back in the day, when my dad was off flying jets and you were in the military hospital alone, you went through a lot of stress for me and because of me, and I am thankful. May you rest as peacefully as the scenic Tuscan countryside, where birds sing, gentle breezes blow, and the pace is soothingly slow.

Tour de Roma

The guy handing us our bikes at Topbike rentals in Rome looked at our group, calculating the odds, and he seemed to give an unconscious shake of the head… He was about 25 and looked like he could bike the Apenines without breaking a sweat. Our group was made up of fifty and sixty something retirees, empty nesters and grandparents who apparently did not appear to be regular cyclists. “Perhaps you would like the motorized bikes? Ha ha, I am only joking!” Others in the office laughed conspiriatorially, trying to appear like they knew he was teasing, but coming off as young and fit and somewhat concerned for our safety. The very people who stood to make money conducting our tour seemed to be trying to give us a way out! Maybe they were concerned that when several members of our group did not return, it would damage their reputation. I asked, “will you be our guide?” He paused, and then spoke rapidly in Italian to the girl in the office. They seemed to be disagreeing on something, and he seemed to be protesting; then I heard them say something about Simone, and he turned to me with a big smile on his face. “No, unfortunately I have another tour today. Simone will be your guide.” Reading between the lines, I sensed that Simone was late coming in, and had drawn the short straw. We were his penalty for being late. When Simone arrived, he too looked us up and down…. “You realize that this tour is over bumpy roads, yes?” we nodded. And you realize that you will be on the bike for 6 hours, over 40 kilometers, yes?” Our entire group put together had probably not been a bike six hours in the last 3 months combined, but we all said yes. Simone looked skeptical. “And you know the roads will be the cobblestone-ahs, yes?” as we nodded, he said, “we will go to the parking lot across the street and do the skills test, and learn the ways of the bicycle. Then we will go, ok?” Amazingly, we passed our skills test, emerged from our practice braking unbroken, and were able to proceed. Simone was possibly late thirties, maybe early forties, but he is a lean, tanned, good-looking man with attractive features and striking salt and pepper hair. Since he bikes 50 miles a day, his legs appear strong, tanned and muscular, unlike any other man’s legs displayed within the group he is guiding. Starting out, he seems thoughtful, but then I realize he seems to be doing more calculations than a CAD computer executing a 3d design. He suddenly announces that he knows a shortcut that will not only give us an amazing view of the City wall, but is flatter and shorter than his usual route. (for all we know, he has redirected us from riding through DaVinci’s front yard and is now taking us via an alleyway instead, but then he did use the magic words flatter and shorter). Having said that, he doesn’t really have to sell us on this idea. We begin, pedaling along at a leisurely pace. Today is May 1, National Workers’ Day, and because it is a holiday, light traffic conditions give him some options. I think he figures he will need them all to help us complete this bike tour on the Appian Way. Simone stops often to show us details and give us lessons on history and background of what we are seeing. (I’m not sure if he is really explaining something important or just giving us multiple opportunities to rest.) We seem to pedal forever, leaving the massive City wall behind, and after what feels like an eternity and the beginnings of saddle sores, we see a street sign that clearly says “Appian Way”. We are cheered by this until Simone says, “Ok. Now, we can begin.” I was thinking we were hopefully about halfway through until this, and checking my watch I realize we have only been gone about 25 minutes. This group of grandparents is game, though, and on we pedal. We do get to make a pit stop at the Catacombs of San Sebastian, and it is amazing to see the care and effort taken by folks to deal with the remains of loved ones. Uncertainty about eternal life is a powerful motivator, and we see signs of that effort displayed poignantly in the tombs of babies and children, extravagantly in the eternal dwellings of the wealthy. If I have learned one thing in Rome, it’s that even as it relates to eternal life, money is still considered as a means to an end. Or THE end, in this case… People have been hoping to buy or work their way into heaven for centuries, when all they need to do is discover Grace…
Our intrepid group remounts the bicycles, sobered now by viewing all those burial plots, and even more sobered by the cobblestone-ahs and the off-road alternative. After bumping along for awhile, we ask Simone how far we are from our wine and cheese stop. “Is not far. Ten minutes.” onward we ride. We hop curbs into dirt paths along the Way, or we bump and stutter over the ancient Roman road. To think that Paul and perhaps Timothy may have once walked this road! If they did, they were certainly more comfortable than we are on these bicycle seats! This change of pace does not daunt our group, although poor Buddy is stricken so badly with hay fever that his primary means of transport has become sneezing down forcibly to propel himself along by the force of the sneezes alone. We have a couple of accidents while negotiating terrain, and there are several bumps and bruises among our riders. After a scrape with some rocks, Cindi’s leg looks like it has been put through a meat grinder, but she is one tough cookie. The ladies help to clean up the blood, and Simone breaks out the first aid kit, and onward we go… As the lean, attractive guide helps to bandage Cindi’s wounds, I swear that some of our other ladies are calculating the risk-reward factor in crashing just so that Simone would have to bandage THEIR legs! We keep riding. “Ten minutes” has stretched into an hour, and still we pedal. Our reward is to see the amazing Roman aqueducts, which run alongside the Appian way. (There is even one that is still in use today! ) Seeing how people lived 2000 years ago is interesting. What is fascinating, though, is seeing how people live TODAY. For the Holiday, it seems that every family in Rome has come out to this park to cook out, to gather with friends and family. They have beaten down little patches of grass, parked under sections of the aqueduct, and filled every conceivable space with family and fellowship. There are impromptu soccer games, parents doting over their bambinos, women talking animatedly in small groups, small children running and playing, and people gathered for fellowship everywhere, as far as the eye can see. They are flying kites, playing pickle ball and bocce ball, smoking cigarettes, playing foot-ah ball, and enjoying being together. If we had wanted to get a glimpse of life in Rome, this is a perfect place to start. Simone tells us that if he were here by himself, he could just ask anyone cooking out and they would give him a sausage from the grill, but since there are nine of us, it would be too much to expect. We totally understand, but that doesn’t keep us from eyeing every grill with a bit of longing as we head towards our wine and cheese… As we dodge happy children at play, and pedal through family reunions and barbecues, one thing is clear: in Italy, the family is still alive and well! The entire park is a testament to multi-generational love, and to the resilience of Italy’s families. When we reach the farm, we are charmed by the ancient, rustic surroundings (the large building there is being renovated, and the signs illustrating the project say it was to be finished in 2011. It looks barely started: Italy!), and we enjoy the hospitality there. Buddy is still suffering, but he’s a fighter, and coming back; Cindi is bandaged but chipper. I am so impressed with our group’s toughness and spirit. There at the farm, our hostess Anna shows us how they make cheese, and we drink our wine. We are given some fava beans to try, and Simone says that should help us on the way home by providing us with some gas-powered jet propulsion! A family group connected to the farm somehow is sitting nearby, having a private cookout as well. They are grilling lamb, and we are famished. As lovely as our wine, bread, and cheese are, that lamb smells GOOD! When we compliment the cook on the aroma, he says something to his party, and then brings our battered little band of bikers a few slices of freshly grilled lamb. It gives us true refreshment– not just from the protein in the meat, but from feasting on Italian generosity. We managed to complete our bike tour, and carry with us indelible images: The City wall, the sights along the way, the Catacombs, the aqueducts; for some, Simone’s tanned Italian good looks; and for all of us, the scene of thousands of Italian families living and loving, and the generous Italian spirit, and the satisfaction we got from spending seven hours bumping along the Appian way.

Truth can indeed be stranger than fiction

This story has several beginnings, or perhaps it is several stories interwoven, or perhaps it is one story, but it started four years ago and is more amazing today than I could have ever imagined. It went from Dallas, Texas, to a Calico Corners fabric store in Palo Alto, California, to a kitchen in Coppell, Texas, then into storage for 3 years, then back to a living room in Coppell. While packed away, it was magically interwoven through time and space by literary transport, and established a connection that continues today in Cortona and Arezzo, Italy. It is a story of magic, of relationship, and of miracle! It is a real life version of Julie and Julia, and today I witnessed it with my own eyes. Four years ago Nancy and I were traveling in northern California and stopped into a Calico Corners fabric store near Stanford University. She found some fabric that she then used to make window treatments for our “Italian style” kitchen, which we were redoing with granite and faux Tuscan wall paint. We had never been to Tuscany, but we admired the style and wanted to enjoy it every day. Being an excellent seamstress, Nancy accented the windows with the rich burgundy and gold fabric she had brought home from California, and the cornice looked terrific over the redone kitchen windows. About a year later, when we sold our home, she salvaged the fabric and took it with us, hoping to use it again someday… The magic threads of this story began to weave a tapestry that is far more interesting a tale than I could create.
A little over a year ago, we were sitting in Bill and Cindi’s living room talking about traveling to Italy. Cindi had been wanting to get a group to go to Tuscany, and had found out that the Villa Laura (used in the movie to represent Bramasole from Frances Mayes’s book in the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun”) was available to rent if we could get a group to go. We joined in enthusiastically, and Cindi made the arrangements. For a year Nancy and I were saving, planning, and thinking about our trip to Cortona. Nancy began researching Cortona and the places we would visit on our amazing journey to Italy. During that time we purchased a fixer upper home, and again redid the kitchen, which again received new granite counters, travertine backsplash, and faux paint. Nancy went into the attic and retrieved the fabric she had used in our previous home. This fabric, I would discover, would connect far more than our two do-it-yourself kitchen remodels. It would span oceans and continents, time and space: and I’m not making this up!
While researching Cortona, Nancy read Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun to learn the REAL story about where we would be staying. We learned that the Villa Laura was the home used in the movie, but not the actual Bramasole villa. It was still beautiful, and we were still able to anticipate being where Diane Lane got her groove back in the movie, so it was all good. Near the end of Frances Mayes’ remarkable story, she mentioned that she had used fabric from her home in the states to make window treatments in Cortona. She had bought the fabric at the Calico Corners in Palo Alto, California, had salvaged it from the home she left, and used it in her home in Italy.
At the same time she was finishing “Under the Tuscan Sun”, Nancy happened to be making the treatments for our “new” kitchen, doing exactly the same thing in Texas that Frances Mayes had described in her book. It was utterly serendipitous, and she couldn’t help but reflect on it as she sat in our kitchen, sewing her window treatments. Nancy said, “I felt such a connection with Frances Mayes at that moment, making my window treatments with fabric from exactly the same store, and it made our upcoming trip to Italy come alive!” the connection was deep and sympathetic. Nancy continued to read everything Frances had written, and we both grew more and more excited about Tuscany. Like many fans, Nancy sent Ms Mayes a Facebook friend request and received a confirmation. I think the Mayes even mentioned on their page that they would be traveling to Cortona in May– so we were intrigued that we would be in Italy at the same time. Wow, small world!
Little did we know… After some time in Rome, our travel itinerary today took us to Arezzo, where they hold an open air antique market once a month. Undeterred by rain, we walked the market and bought several keepsakes. Crowds were light because of the weather, and we shopped and looked around some more. I had to sort of squeeze by a tall, silver haired man with an umbrella, and he politely let me slip by him underneath it. His companion, who I did not really notice, was browsing at the table beside us. Then Nancy grabbed my arm. “Bo, I think that’s her!”. I’m a little slow. “Who?” “Frances Mayes and Ed!”
“Well, go meet her!” I said. “No, Nancy said, I don’t want to bother her.” “Nonsense, she’ll appreciate it.” We approached Ed and Frances, who were as nice as could be, and Nancy got to share with the author how meaningful her books had been in preparing for our trip of a lifetime, while I said something inane to Ed about our being do-it-yourselfers too. We spent a couple of pleasant moments there, standing in the rain in downtown Arezzo, somewhat overwhelmed with the unlikeliness of it all. The threads of the tapestry, woven in San Francisco, Coppell, Cortona, and Arezzo had come together: picture street booths, rainy cobblestone streets, umbrellas, and four people meeting impossibly at that moment at that Italian intersection… As we parted, the Mayes said, “See you on the Piazza!”, and there, 5200 miles from our kitchen window treatments, which which had traveled from Calico Corners in Palo Alto to Texas, we met the woman whose window treatments traveled from Calico Corners in Palo Alto to Cortona. It just took a trip to Arezzo to connect all the threads of the tapestry, woven across time, space, and possibility.

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Gold Among the Ruins

“Look at me. LOOK AT ME!” our guide Carmine is standing before us, holding up the book on Pompeii, which illustrates the city’s charm and beauty and provides a dramatic counterpoint to the ruins in which we stand. I get the feeling that Carmine could have easily stepped into its pages and been right at home in its cosmopolitan atmosphere. He is a wiry, sensual man, about 5’6″ and deeply tanned, with a mostly silver mane of longish hair that is swept comfortably back. He glides before us like a bullfighter in the ring, easily engaging our puny tourist comments or questions, dispatching them with graceful parries. His somewhat raspy voice speaks in low melodious tones. His accent carries a bit of French, but perhaps that is just his imperious nature and sophistication peeking through his discourse. “Before we go in, there are the restrooms if you need to make the quick peepee.” If you crossed Mick Jagger with Al Pacino, you would have a tour guide very much like Carmine. Somehow he seems Italian to the core. With his pastel striped sweater, chic sunglasses, and his European man-purse, he is utterly at home in his own skin. He wears a dark blue bandanna tied jauntily as a neckerchief, completing his devil-may-care look, and he struts more than walks. There is a bit of ennui in his delivery, (after all, how many times has he led tourists on this same path?) but he still has traces of his passion that redeem his presentation and give it personality. He is a bit disgusted with us because, like Gilligan, we have only signed up for a three hour tour. It is not adequate, but he is not responsible for our limited time and resources. He can only make the best of our plight. “If you had a week to see Pompeii, it would not be enough. Perhaps it would take a month.” Since we will not be there a month, his attitude suggests that there is only so much he can do with us. “Everything you see is original”, he tells us, which does not preclude us from asking several times, as we see some detail of ancient life or construction, “is that original”? After a couple such inquiries, the diminutive Carmine turns to our 6’2″ friend Buddy and says, “if you ask me one-a more time-a, is that original, imma have to kill you.” Carmine does a very good job explaining what we see before us, enlarging our perspective and helping us to visualize the sophistication and beauty of life in Pompeii. We are dazzled by the amazing public baths, and by the house of the Faun. Carmine gives us details about customs which we did not know. He describes how people would socialize while sitting on one of the holes set in the common bench of the public toilet, and how rich people would have servants go sit on the cold bench for them in the winter before they would go use it– which prompted Buddy to say, “that must be where the term, ‘bench warmer’ came from”. Makes sense. As he leads us through the ruins, there are some not-so-subtle clues to Carmine’s sexual orientation. He helps women over steps, but says, “I am allergic” to men, who must navigate rough spots on their own. He cannot help but react to the youth and prettiness of a young Russian woman who asks him a question in passing, and the Italian in him appraises her with the confidence of a man who believes that, given the opportunity, she would want him. He is proudly heterosexual, and it is natural for him to be available. He takes pleasure in showing us some of the things they DIDN’T tell us about Pompeii in elementary school– the erotica of Pompeii…There are paintings or pieces of pottery for sale that illustrate passionate embraces and Kama sutra-like positions. But the one he enjoys pointing out the most (pun intended) is the picture of the man (or is it Bacchus?) whose extremely large phallus, which extends to his knee, is balanced on a scale. In the opposite side of the scale is a large amount of precious metal. Carmine tells us this is where the phrase “worth its weight in gold” came from… He is enthusiastic as he tries to get my wife to buy this artwork, but he remains professional. While he is suggestive, he never really crosses the line to crude, and although he is open to flirting, he never openly flirts. We are customers, after all. But he enjoyed our reaction to the gold on the scale, and traversed the line between tour guide and rake without being too naughty. And this is what I found noteworthy about our tour: Carmine was professional and informative, and he was doing a job for us that he does all the time. He was, yes, perhaps a bit bored, and yes, perhaps a bit disappointed that we were not giving Pompeii the time and attention it truly deserved, but when all was said and done, two things stood out to me about him: first, he was thoroughly professional, and he delivered scholarly content with ease and authenticity. He never spoke down to us, and guided us without being too condescending or, on the other hand, too familiar. Second, there was something a bit more subtle. Even though he was a bit of a true Italian ladies’ man, I noticed a couple of times his taking time to assist a couple of our group members who encountered difficulty navigating Pompeii’s rough streets or steps, and he cautioned us a couple of times about going too fast for some to keep up. As I heard his gentle reprimand about going too far ahead, and as I watched him gently assist a couple of our ladies to negotiate a high step, I thought, “the precious metal on the scales is not the only gold in these ruins.” There is a little in Carmine’s heart as well.

From Pompeii to Cortona

I couldn’t imagine a more perfect evening. We have arrived at Cortona after our whirlwind Roman Holiday, and the change of pace from Rome is astonishing. There are birds singing, and the pale azure sky is accented by wisps of cotton scattered lazily across its vast, comfortable canopy. The temperature is utterly appropriate, and makes it possible to feel completely at home by the pool on grounds that are lovely as any I have ever walked upon. Flowers are celebrating the Italian Spring, and the smell of rosemary and jasmine resound like a nasal aria wafting over us in the very gentle breeze. Francesco and Christian are in the kitchen cooking our evening meal, which we will eat on the terrace in the courtyard, listening to the soothing, cheerful melodies that baptize us with pure joy. Good wine and good company make this a wonderful day to be alive.
I’m sure there were days like this in Pompeii before Vesuvius erupted and buried the city under tons of ash. There were beautiful days of sunshine and blessing. People were laughing, talking, eating, playing, and then– sudden disaster. They were caught and trapped in their homes, buried while attempting to escape, frozen in hot ash and a moment in time. On our tour of Pompeii the other day, there were molded images of their distress on display, bodies outlined from having been smothered under the falling volcanic debris. The bodies are people of all ages, shapes and sizes, grandparents and children, frozen now for centuries in their ashen state. The terror of sudden demise is expressed in their body language, and relentless time has turned them into morbid statues that we tourists gawk at with sympathy and relief.
So, what does Pompeii have to do with Cortona? Or more accurately, why am I sitting in this perfect evening at Villa Laura, thinking about death and destruction in Pompeii? Well, first of all, I think I appreciate this day more, having seen the unfortunate results visited upon those poor, ashen forms… And I should not only appreciate this day, but every day as a blessing and a reason to celebrate. The contrast between Pompeii and Cortona is a reminder that life is short, and we need to embrace the day at hand. Don’t waste it. Finally, we should be grateful for the life we have, because it is a blessing to be savored and appreciated. I shouldn’t need a perfect Cortona evening to inspire such gratitude, but I do intend to carry this evening forward with me as a permanent reminder that today counts. I hope you will too.