Thursday, December 23, 2010

Intimacy and Fatherhood

I wasn’t prepared for the intimacy of fatherhood.

There’s the sheer physicality of it: poop that packs a punch, pain-filled cries, bouncing Robin on the sports exercise ball until my back hurts. Being a newborn’s dad is plain tiring (and we’ve been blessed with lots of help already!) The smell of her skin, its unreal softness on my cheek, overwhelms me.

Emotionally, from the moment she was born something broke up inside me in order to let in more air for love. I didn’t even realize it was happening until a few days in when her beautiful eyes seemed to lock with mine and a truth resonated: I’m yours. Of course, there’s also the quick frustration when Robin just can’t be calmed, and the wrenching gut when her cry penetrates into my pinky toes.

But it is the spiritual intimacy that most strikes me by surprise. Immediately I glimpse the long nights and miraculously intense days of my own infancy from the eyes of my father and mother. Their love for me then and now takes on a sacred light, as if lit by the preternatural purples and blues and reds of stained glass. And the metaphor of God as patient parent, as life-giving and -sustaining Father, pops into focus for me as it never did before. May Laurel and I be good and faithful stewards of the new life you share with us, O God. She and we are your children, now and forever. Amen!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What's in a Name?

My mom, Elizabeth, with my baby sister, Lana.

As impossibly large as this number seems to me, it's a simple fact that my mother, Elizabeth Anne, died six years ago today. In thinking about her, I wanted to share a little bit about how we came to name our daughter.

I knew we'd like to honor my mother's memory if we had a girl, so Elizabeth was always in the picture -- especially because the name also honors Colin's incredible mother, Penny Elizabeth. But fairly early on I was captivated by tying the name Robin to Elizabeth (though I didn't know initially if it would be the first or middle name). As a literary nerd who thinks a lot about the meaning behind words -- and names -- here are a few reasons why.

Most simply, the name reflects one of the aspects of my mother that was most memorable, life-giving, alive: she loved nature, she loved bird watching, and she loved to share that passion for the wonder of the outdoors with others. One of my earliest memories is from when I was about three or four years old and we lived on 10 acres in Cove, Oregon. One cold spring morning when the trees were still bare and everything still seemed brown, she led us out on a walk  in order to show us a nest of brilliantly colored robin’s eggs she'd found. The name Robin points to this overflowing awe at "the beauty of the earth" (to quote one of her favorite hymns).

Most significantly, though, the name reflects a trust, faith, and hope in the truth of new life and resurrection. The Robin is the traditional harbinger of spring -- the signal that just when it seems the sun will never shine again, life and light begin to return. I wanted to tie that truth to my mother's memory.

This is especially poignant today, on the winter solstice. For a long time I took my mother's death on the winter's solstice to be a rather ominous thing -- as if the fact that she died on the shortest, darkest day of the year underscored the sadness I felt about losing her. But almost three years ago I began to see it in a different way. Throughout human history, the winter solstice has primarily been a celebration of the return of the light; a celebration of the fact that just as the days are darkest, the light begins to return.

Today is an especially spectacular solstice: it's both a full moon and a full lunar eclipse, which last happened in 1638. Adding to the night's drama, the Ursid meteor shower continues. Writing about today's solstice and eclipse, Grove Harris says: "preserving hope is one role of religion -- to help people negotiate how to remain hopeful despite adversity and to live in the realm of possibility rather than in despair, no matter how warranted. The winter solstice models this on a celestial level. No problem between science and religion here. When it's darkest, the light begins to return. And this year, the full lunar eclipse reinforces that message. Light and dark are intimately interconnected."

Finally, Colin and I considered the other women we had known well with the name Robin. Both Robin Sweet and Robin Fillmore are women of great faith, compassion, intelligence, strength, and grace ... and so that sealed the deal. We would be thrilled to have our daughter grow up to be women "after" their hearts, and after the hearts of her two grandmothers.

In the days leading up to Robin's birth and since, I've felt a resurgence of grief over my own mom's absence. I know she would have loved being a grandma, and I wish I still had my own mother around as I navigate what it means to become one. But truthfully, most moments I am filled with gratitude, not sadness: gratitude for a healthy baby girl, for the love my mom gave, for the truth that death and darkness are not the end of the story. On this December 21st, I'm celebrating new life even as I remember the day my mom stopped breathing. I listen to Robin Elizabeth breathe in and out at my breast, and I thank the Giver of Life.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Warm (and Wintry) Worldly Welcome to Robin Elizabeth

Welcome to the world, Robin Elizabeth!

Figuring out the baby sling ...

Look, Ma -- I can whistle!

Our first Tennessean snow...

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Nesting in Tennessee

Backyard laundry on the line

Colin painted a free dresser for Baby Mathewson

Mom/Penny and Aunt Ellie came to visit in late September...

A visit with a Sojourners friend (Jessica) in Knoxville, where we enjoyed baked donuts :)


Fall in Sewanee is as spectacular as promised

Colin's favorite study spot

35.5 weeks! (Not that I'm counting)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

It appears that I gained a little weight in Europe...

But thankfully, it's the life-giving kind of weight :).

I realized recently that there are some people who read this blog who aren't on Facebook ... and thus might not know that Colin and I are expecting a baby on December 1st. So here's the official announcement, with apologies for the delay!

To the right is a photo at about 28 weeks. We don't yet know if baby Mathewson is a boy or a girl (and won't know until the day of the birth, unless the doctor slips up and spills the beans, since the info is in my chart). Any guesses?

As has been pointed out to us, it appears we like to take on multiple major life transitions at once: moving, starting seminary, becoming parents. Or getting married, moving, and joining a new intentional community, to name a past example. So maybe it's true, we like to take life in big chunks. But we're grateful for this expectation of new life, even though -- as everyone says -- we really have no idea how this little person will change our life :).

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Our Visit to Cordoba, Spain

In early June Laurel and I met up with my mom, dad, and sister for a 10-day visit to southern Spain. What I learned about and saw during our short time there was so surprising I needed more time to process before writing on it. Now that we're fairly settled into Tennessee I'm starting to reenter the news cycle again, and the current controversy over the siting of Cordoba House, the proposed Muslim community center and prayer space, near New York's Ground Zero reminded me that I still owed myself (and others?) some reflection on our brief time in Cordoba, Spain.

Our rental car's GPS passive agressively guided us the "direct" (wrong) way down one-way narrow streets in the city's historic center before encouraging us with a chuckle to drive over what seemed to be a small pedestrian plaza to our hotel. Huh: a broad, tree-lined street seemed to lead to our destination as well, but what fun would that have been? After unloading the luggage, we struck out on middle-of-the-day, searingly sunny march for lunch and to get what my dad refers to as a "lay of the land." We made it a few hundred yards before tucking into some tapas, some of our best yet of the trip: rabo del toro (ox-tail roasted tender) was a delicious specialty.

By a stroke of luck, that evening we watched a full-scale public procession from the Cathedral to the center square commemorating Corpus Christi, a Christian holiday celebration for which Cordoba is known. Rosemary, sage, and lavender scattered thickly along the parade route stirred up a rich citrus-y aroma as on-lookers peeked from balconies decorated with hand-painted tasseled silk scarves. Patios, also of Cordoban renown, beckoned from behind iron-grilled gates or appeared suddenly upon turning up a quiet alley -- their potted flowers reflected in the surface of cool gurgling water fountains.

The next morning we entered the Mezquita, the principal tourist attraction of this Andalusian town. Spanish for "mosque," the Mezquita symbolizes and embodies to this day the tension between and the fusion of Christianity and Islam. What a sight it is: Quiet, dark, low-ceilinged intimate space and stretch-to-infinity Moorish arches supported by delicate columns greet us as we enter. Suddenly, in the center of this peaceful labyrinth, a blindingly white, soaring-roofed, Baroque-ly loud and triumphant cathedral appears, stitched seamlessly into the mosque's arches. You got it: not a cathedral built over a mosque built over a church (a dime a dozen throughout southern Spain), but a cathedral built within a mosque built over a church. Regardless of the architectural mixed messages, since the Reconquista victory in 1236 the Catholic Church has treated the sacred space as unambiguously Christian.

In this place history's interpretation matters. After local Muslims expressed an interest recently to resume Friday prayer here, the Catholic Diocese of Cordoba responded with a glossy marketing display emphasizing that "the Cathedral of Cordoba is not simply a monument or a temple of different cultures; nor is it a mosque, but the Mother Church of the Diocesis." In other words: no.

But there is more to a history including a small Visigothic church at this site, its destruction at the hands of the Moors and the subsequent construction of the third largest mosque in the world during the Caliphate of Cordoba, and its Christian co-optation by King Ferdinand III as the Christians marched steadily south, eventually completing the "reconquest" of Spain over the Moors in Granada in 1492. In the twelfth century, while under Moorish rule, Cordoba was the largest city in Europe, the first with lighted streets and indoor plumbing, and producer of some of the finest minds of the Middle Ages, including the great Jewish and Muslim philosophers Maimonides and Averroes.

This period of Moorish religious tolerance and blossoming civilization inspired the developers of the proposed Islamic prayer space and community center to name the project "Cordoba House." While I don't profess to know the ins and outs of the current controversy over the siting of this center so close to Ground Zero, I believe strongly in the potential of the peoples of the Book (Jews, Christians and Muslims) to find much common ground in their overlapping faiths and to build great things from this shared foundation. It happened in Cordoba once. And the Mezquita's Islamic-Christian architecture may one day herald the way ahead: from pain and conquest to dialogue and reconciliation.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Welcome to Tennessee

After brief stops in San Diego and Oregon, Laurel and I (and our friend Breanna!) drove to Tennessee in three days, arriving just over a week ago. Our duplex sits on the edge of a forest chock full of louder-than-crickets cicadas, deer, rabbits, bats, snakes, and fireflies. We're both ready to begin three-year Masters of Divinity degrees at the School of Theology at the University of the South (just named the most beautiful college campus by the Princeton Review!) The first week of orientation has been straightforward, relatively tasty, and annoying only because our moving truck hasn't arrived yet. So Laurel's starting to get tired of wearing the same three or so sets of clothes every three or so days.

On Saturday the school bussed the incoming seminary class down to Hayneville, Alabama, a four-hour drive each way, to commemorate the murder of Jonathan Daniels on August 20, 1965. An Episcopal seminarian, Jonathan answered Martin Luther King, Jr.'s call to clergy to participate in the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights. Unlike most, Jonathan decided to stay and work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee registering voters after the media's attention had shifted elsewhere. On August 14th Jonathan was arrested in Fort Deposit, Alabama along with others, including Stokely Carmichael (later founder of the Black Panther Party), for joining a picket line protesting a segregated grocery store. White men with bats walked toward the picketers, but when those in the line refused to move, they were arrested instead. They asked about their rights, and the men responded: "Here in Fort Deposit, you don't have any rights."

The picketers spent the next six days in the Hayneville jail, and then were unexpectedly released the morning of August 20th. Suspicious of their jailers' motives, the small group waited at the street corner of the quiet town while white 26-year old Jonathan and black 16-year old Ruby Sales walked to nearby Cash's for a cold drink. As Ruby walked up the store's steps, a man appeared with a shotgun in the door frame and told them to leave or "I'll blow your damn brains out." Jonathan pushed Ruby out of the way and was shot in the stomach, dying instantly.

Tom Coleman, the part-time deputy sheriff who shot Jonathan, was found not guilty by an all-white jury after a 40-day trial during which Coleman testified that Jonathan had threatened him with a knife. Jonathan's murder led to reforms that required black citizens to become eligible to serve on juries.

About one hundred folks from several states made the trip to Hayneville on Saturday. We walked and prayed at the now rundown jail, the site of Cash's store (now an insurance agency, pictured right), and shared communion in the courthouse where Jonathan's murderer was acquitted.

Jonathan made sense of his time registering voters in the South through his faith in God's love for all people, and God's hope for justice. He experienced the Spirit urging him to get involved after Mary's magnificat struck him in a new way: God "has brought down the powerful from their thrones,/ And lifted up the lowly;/ He has filled the hungry with good things,/ And sent the rich away empty."

We knelt on the concrete where Jonathan breathed his last and prayed from the Book of Common Prayer: "O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen." These sorts of public liturgies are so compelling to me because they demonstrate powerfully that love-inspired action, shared memory (however sorrowful), and the resurgence of hope through God's promise to the community of faith lie at the heart of what Christianity is all about.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Returning Home

Our Grand Trip is over. One hundred days exploring the Holy Land, Italy, Spain, Sweden, France, and Ireland (with a surprise trip to Boston time thrown in). We've spent the last days reflecting on the adventures, and have let the underlying meaning(s) take their time to surface. This experience truly gifts us "life and food for future years."

I look back to my first blog post written in London (in transit to Jerusalem) and notice its focus on a local cemetery-turned-public-park. Funny: this evening I walked through another cemetery, part of Glendalough National Monument in Ireland. Centuries ago, St. Kevin found a stunning, serene mountain valley embracing two narrow lakes and decided to live in a hard-to-reach cave as a hermit. As news of his commitment and wisdom spread, followers arrived. Since it became difficult to be a popular hermit, he founded a monastery instead.

On my way back from the local tavern with correct change for the internet service, I realized that I could have the old monastery grounds to myself away from the daily tour bus crowds. The double stone arch marked my entrance as I made my way past a roofless stone church, its floor now covered only with gravel and the occasional grave marker. A vista opened down the valley we had hiked earlier today, swallows flitted past, and it suddenly occurred to me that this was sacred ground. I slipped off my sandals, not because a burning bush began talking to me, but as a way of honoring this place of rest and devotion to God. Even more, I thought as I walked on the fine gravel, I wanted to honor and give thanks for the privilege of time and money that made this trip, peppered with pilgrimages, possible. We return home to the busy business of moving to Tennessee and beginning three years of seminary study. I will bring with me a quieted inside, gratitude, a renewed awe for God's expansive creation and a honed respect for history and what it tells us today about what humans are capable of.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Why I Just Walked 72 Miles

Joined by our good friends Matt and Molly, Laurel and I spent the last five days walking the final 72 miles of the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route in northern Spain to the traditional site of St. James' final resting place (the story of how he got there from the Middle East, which involved a stone boat, is worth a read!)

As you can imagine, we had a lot of time for thinking, so I spent some of the time pondering the question, "Why am I doing this?!" The coolness factor, for starters: when else will I walk 69 miles in 4 days and 21 miles in one day ever again? Good bragging material, clearly. As a goal-oriented Western experience collector, there was a specific goal and (thankfully) good signage that led to a successful arrival at our destination.

Then there's the pragmatic rationalization: since I'm soon to begin seminary and aspire to become an Episcopal priest, I figured it would be helpful as I imagined how far Jesus walked from the Sea of Galilee to the Jordan River by Jericho to be baptized. Practical, right?

We figured it would be fun to travel with Matt and Molly, and it was. The four of us hadn't really factored in how the my-foot-is-about-to-explode pain might detract from the fun quotient, however.

Of course, there was something else larger than these reasons and less tangible, more mysterious. For more than 1000 years people have walked far greater distances than our measly 116 km for penance, for hope, in faith. Pilgrims packed Santiago's cathedral at the end of the journey for the daily Mass, sitting at the base of columns, standing everywhere, beyond tired and still searching for something even as we realized this particular quest was over. We yearned for a ritual that would preserve the spirit of this experience and guide us in a new direction.

We head to Ireland for 9 days tomorrow, and then we will be home in San Diego for only a few days before driving to Tennessee to begin seminary. It too will be cool, practical, and fun (hopefully free from foot pain, though) -- but it also involves a larger, longer, and more mysterious search for Home.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Dawdling in Dalarna

Since Thursday, we've come to know the depth and breadth of Swedish hospitality while staying Laurel's relatives in Mora, a small town in the Dalarna region. The blood line goes impressively far back in time: Laurel's great great grandmother, Brita, had a brother through whom our Swedish relatives descended. Like 150 years ago. And we're being treated as kindly and generously as if we were first cousins. Gunnar, Ingritt, Daniel, Andreas, Anna, and Lynnea graciously welcomed us into their lives even after we passed the 3-days-makes-stinking-visitors mark! It's pretty cool to know that we have Swedish friends, no, Swedish family we can stay in touch with so we don't have to depend on Jon Stewart to keep us updated on the country...

The food has been spectacularly tasty. I've at times been tempted to change my three favorite food items (tortillas, Tillamook cheese, and avocados) to rye crisp, white Swedish cheese, and butter. Butter is an amazing, amazing invention, as is kavelgris, a type of thin bread with a pita-like texture but sweeter and spiced subtly with anise and fennel. I've found out that moose meat is pretty darn good, and that schapps goes well with nubbesallad, a mix of hard boiled egg, pickled herring, dill, lemon peel, and creme fraiche.

Most fortunately, we visited the area, which is known for retaining its traditional heritage, during one of the biggest festivals of the year: midsummer. Every year on the Friday closest to June 25 (I think) the whole country takes the day off, and in Dalarna, most folks jump in traditional dress and walk to the town square for dancing and the raising of a maypole. Most unfortunately, it started raining during the start of the dancing, so merrymaking didn't last as long as normal. But, we still got to see the maypole-raising process, which would have made any engineer proud. The pole measured more than 50 feet long and took 10 people to carry to its stand. Then, over the next ten minutes, about 30 villagers lifted the pole foot by foot using tree-length support beams. Decorated with pine needle wreaths, the pole stands securely in the middle of village squares all over Sweden until next year's festival: an ancient and public act of gratitude for summer's warmth and long hours of sunlight.
Sweden reminds us a lot of Minnesota but with better health care.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Couple Slices of Sweden

After a week in Boston for a Fund for Theological Education conference, Laurel and I are in Sweden visiting some of her distant relatives alongside her Uncle Randy, from not-so-distant Los Angeles. I continue lacking profundity in reflecting on all we've done or seen in the past month, but in the mean time, I'd like to call your attention to two Swedish items.

The first, on the right, is a picture of last night's dinner: the tastiest potato pancake I've ever had, crowned with thick slices of bacon and soon to be dazzled by tart lingonberries. It doesn't get much better than this.

Second, while wandering through Stockholm we happened upon the 12 o'clock changing of the guard ceremony at the Royal Palace, and I must say there is something alluring about a country that puts this much effort into the event.

This isn't about relieving a soldier or two for a while. This is more like changing a company of soldiers, and they bring in a marching band, and they've got these great silver-and-gold spiked helmets. They look like they're having a great time with it. And they don't look like they have much else going on.

As if to confirm, the commander got on the mike and along with describing the ceremony in Swedish and English, he also recommended we check out the Royal Gift Shop. As far as I can tell, Sweden hasn't yet joined NATO. They're busy, okay?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Monkey Ate My Poncho

We just waved goodbye to my mom, dad, and sister after a 10-day visit to southern Spain and Portugal. Seven hundred years of Moorish (Islamic) rule in the region left a fascinating mark that remains startingly relevant today. I hope to share more soon as I process it all.

Our day trip to the rock of Gibraltar proved easier to digest. In the eighteenth century War of the Spanish Succession, Spain granted the infamous rocky northern gateway of the Mediterranean to Great Britain, only to quickly regret the decision. The UK has held on tenaciously since to the mile-long, 1400-foot high chunk of limestone from the top of which can be seen two oceans and two continents. It's definitely the best view around, and it comes with monkeys! About 200 Barbary Macaques live on the top of the rock, and tradition has it that as long as the primates remain, so will the British. That explains why the local government feeds them, besides their oh-so-cute-and-novel attractiveness to tourists.

Signs all around the viewpoint state very clearly that we're not supposed to feed the monkeys. No problem. We just wanted to take pictures with them. They're photogenic little buggers, seeming to enjoy the attention and posing with studied aloofness. I snapped some shots, then started listening to the audioguide from the highest point in the area while two monkeys dozed on the guard rails. The introductory video again warns of impending doom and a 500-euro fine if you feed the monkeys, and that they've been known to steal food from tourists' backpacks. Whatever, I thought. I'm smarter than a monkey. Besides, these two nearby couldn't have looked more bored and disinterested.

I realized I felt a bit cold for the first time in days, so I slipped off one strap of my backpack, slid it in front of me, and pulled out a windbreaker while listening to the audioguide's history section. Then I set the pack on the ground so I could pull the jacket over my head, but as I let go of the strap I see out of the corner of my eye a monkey three feet away and closing in fast. Realizing he'd been spotted he lunged for the open backpack in the half second I spent in shock. He yanked out my plastic poncho, apparently thinking there was food inside of it, while I wondered if I should try to start a pulling contest with a monkey. Fortunately, he moved a foot away to munch through the balled up layers of plastic, giving me a more comfortable space to slide the pack away...

...right into the next monkey, which had also been "sleeping" just moments before. This guy hit the jackpot, because beneath my poncho was an orange that he snagged with ease (and I swear a snicker, but I was feeling pretty paranoid at this point).

Smart enough now to know I needed to pick up my backpack before some other monkey parachuted in from goodness knows where, I look up to see dozens of wide-eyed tourists watching me -- but mostly filming me for their family videos. I quickly hid in a corner to nurse my monkey-bitten ego. Trust me, it doesn't feel good to be outwitted by an evolutionary antecedent. (And it brought back that painful memory of being beaten in chess by a 6-year old I was babysitting while at Stanford...)

The mastermind of the one-two monkey punch got little for his efforts but a mouthful of plastic, which he spit out and waited in consternation for his buddy to share some orange with him. But the co-conspirator selfishly wolfed down just about the whole thing and left quite a mess of peels behind. While I'm usually good about picking up trash, particularly my own, something in me refused to pick up the rest of the orange. Apparently, the monkeys are smart, so they should learn how a trash can works.

As we walked over to St. Michael's Cave, immortalized in Homer as the entrance to the Underworld, we soon watch in disbelief as monkeys jump onto unsuspecting tourists' backs to try to open their bags, while others climbed on cars and hung on to the side windows even after the cars started driving. That would have been helpful information about 15 minutes earlier. So take it from me: never turn your back on a sleeping monkey!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Top Ten Memories of Italy

As we leave Italy and fly to Sevilla for ten days with my family, here's a list of my favorite moments in Italy this May:

10. People-watching on Rome's Spanish Steps and in the more neighborhood-y feeling Campo del Giacomo del Orio in Venice.

9. We splurged on two nights in a nicer hotel in the Italian Alps that share a border with France, and were astonished by the breakfast served there: hard-boiled eggs, fresh baked lemon pound cake, two kinds of jam, local yogurt, and some of the best granola we've ever had...a great breakfast to be sure no matter where we were, but particularly in contrast to the otherwise sad state of Italian breakfast-eating, which usually included dry white bread and butter.

8. I'm pretty sure I discovered the equivalent of a chorizo burrito in Italy in Bolzano, close to the Austrian border, in the form of heisse fleischkase, a magnificent combination of chewy delicious brown rye bread around a somewhat greasy slab of pork-beef loaf with's crazy, crazy good, and like a chorizo burrito, should probably not be consumed more than a couple times a week. That same day, after taking a gondola up into the nearby mountains and hiking through cute Austrian-looking villages, we ordered a second apple strudel because the first tasted so good!!

7. Michelangelo's last Pieta, David, and his sculptures in the Medici Chapel, all in Florence.

6. Raphael's School of Athens and Liberation of St. Peter in the Vatican Museum, followed by the Sistine Chapel, then Michelangelo's first Pieta in St. Peter's, then mass at St. Peter's.

5. Our "best evers": salami, mint ice cream (gelato, of course), pasta (penne norciana, a pork cream sauce), apple strudel, rye bread, and cappuccino!

4. Resting against an old stone wall on a grassy field to eat a salami and cheese sandwich after a long hike in the Italian Alps while watching ibex graze nearby.

3. Walking to the top of the highest point over the town of Assisi to overlooking the surrounding valley while it lightly rained and the sun scattered its beams across the view between the patchy clouds as swallows dived and rose around us.

2. Watching Laurel see Venice's Grand Canal for the first time from a vaporetto boat. It's her dream city: only boats and feet are available to get around!

1. Sitting under a neon blue night sky next to a spinning bright yellow-lighted carousel in Florence's Piazza de la Repubblica listening to an opera singer belt out a beautifully romantic song.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Face-to-Face with the Wild Ibex

Yesterday and today were spent enjoying Gran Paradiso National Park, the former Alpine hunting preserve for the king of Italy. Although Mt. Blanc was spectacular, this, for me, is even better:  our lodging 3km outside of the village in Cogne is actually IN the park, which means we can walk out the door to a spectacular meadow and begin hiking.

Today was our most ambitious venture yet. And although we only hiked for 5 hours, I'd say it was among my most extreme day hikes. The ascent was steep and constant. The cliffs above and below were of dizzying height. And, to add to the adventure, we weren't exactly properly equipped. We kept seeing hikers in parkas and boots, with two walking sticks in hand and gear strapped to their backs. At one point, a couple walked by that were carrying skis and snowshoes on their packs. Meanwhile, we had our sweatshirts, New Balance walking shoes, and sack lunches. On the bright side, Colin found us some au natural walking sticks on the trail, so we weren't completely out of place. (And actually, I would have paid big money to keep my stick toward the top of the trail.)

Thankfully, the weather was good and we didn't need more than a half day to see over a dozen marmots and countless ibex. I'd never seen either, and to be honest, didn't have a clear idea about what each looked like. I might have guessed rodent-like and cute for marmot, and regal and big-ish for ibex... but beyond that, it's fuzzy. But today seared each in my memory... especially the ibex. (Cue dramatic music.)

As Colin and I passed the snow and tree line, we began to wonder how high our sneakers could take us. But the snow was patchy, and we decided to keep going as long as our feet weren't getting too wet. At one point, I looked across a ravine and said, "Look, an ibex trail!" noting a small line running across the mountain on the other side. But then we saw some people on the trail. And then, a half-hour later, we were on the trail. The number of marmot sightings increased. The number of hikers decreased. And the ibex got bigger and bigger. In our extensive two-day experience, this is how ibex demographics work: Small, juvenile ibex -- down in the valley. Young adult ibex -- an hour and a half hike up. Giant ibex with 3.5 foot horns -- 2.5 hours up. We'd reached the place where the adults like to hang out. 

This was cool, but a little unnerving. I watched one of these giants tumble down the mountain toward my husband (while I watched safely from behind a boulder) and wondered if he might be bowled off the mountain before my eyes. But the ibex just passed him by, and we thought our ibex excitement was over. We couldn't go any further on the trail without snow gear, and the weather seemed to be turning, so we began our descent. (Augment dramatic music.)

Shortly after we turned around, we looked up to find that five full-sized ibex were standing right on the trail. You know, the ibex trail on the mountain ridge. And here's the thing to remember at this point: We knew absolutely nothing about ibex. I mean, I don't even know how to pluralize the word "ibex".  (Is it ibexes?) So there we are, 10 feet from these creatures with horns half my size, and I'm not really sure if I should be scared or not. Are they like moose? Can they be frightened, provoked, aggressive? Will they do to humans what we'd seen the males do to one another? Are we breaking all sorts of Alpine wilderness rules by getting this close? Or are these fears absurd? Hard to say when the big ibex is looking at you. Make that ibexes, plural.

Colin threw down a rock to try to scatter them. They were unperturbed. We made some noises. Still unperturbed. And then, I made our (potentially) life or death decision based on the most mundane thing: my fingers were cold. And the wind was coming up. I mean, we couldn't wait there forever. We had to walk through the ibexes. And so we did, with our heads held high and our little hearts fluttering, getting five feet or less from the biggest horns I've ever seen outside the zoo. The ibex remained unperturbed, and we survived.  It turns out Ibex aren't known to be aggressive. For those who knew that all along, you can stop laughing now. It was a grand and memorable day in the Alps, and we even made it back to our place without a drop of rain.

Just Figured Out the Adjective "Alpine" Comes From the Alps

[Nerdy disclaimer: Internet access has been limited since Florence, at least for "complicated" online operations such as updating our blog, given that the iMac available was running OS 9.2 and IE 4.5 ...]

For better or worse, we left Florence for Cinque Terre as the weekend approached, and the poor/expensive accommodations (sharing one bathroom with 12 French tourists took some strategizing for a turn in the shower) and lots of rain the previous week (resulting in the closure of the walking trails between the towns) kept us moving on after one night in Riomaggiore.

Next stop: Aosta Valley, a semi-autonomous region in northwest Italy at the base of the Alps. We hiked along Sound-of-Music grassflower hillsides listening to cow bells. So cool. They apparently invented Fontina cheese or something too, which prompted me to eat a lot of it, and then I blamed my stomach ache the next day on eating the rind on the cheese (or it could have been my eating the whole basket of bread at dinner the night before). Toured Verres Castle (picture right).

We couldn't resist going a bit farther to Courmayer at the foot of Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Western Europe at 15,780 feet. Isn't that picture amazing?! (We didn't take it...the Linux computer I'm using now doesn't recognize my camera...)

The town is quite touristy in the winter for the skiing and in the summer for the hiking (the Tour du Mont Blanc trail is another adventure we fantasize tackling some day)'s somewhat of a ghost town in mid-May. Very peaceful though! Laurel savored the tastiest homemade tagliatelli pasta with bolognese meat sauce that night. My Fontina cheese-inspired stomach ache was in its healing stage, so I kept it simple with pizza instead...with you guessed it: more Fontina.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Thoughts on Leaving Florence

I feel compelled to blog this morning - maybe a sign of missing family and friends - but I'm still lacking a particular subject. So, with hopes of saving you from a rambling post, I'll just try the images/thoughts/highlights format again, but this time from Florence, Italy.

 Street Scenes: It's fun to notice images and situations that are either completely foreign - as in things I feel I would never see in the U.S. - or familiar but just a little "off" from my expectations. As an example of the former, the other day I watched as an older man on his bicycle passed by with not one, but two, little white dogs sitting up and barking at me from the baskets hanging on either side of the back of the bike. The dogs were each wearing raincoats -- which, admittedly, I probably would see in the U.S. -- and nestled next to groceries (which I probably would not). And it turns out they may not have been barking at me. When I turned, I noticed yet another dog in a bike basket passing the other direction. As for almost-familiar sights: yesterday I watched a simple but sweet encounter between two elementary school aged boys. We happened to walk through a neighborhood just as school was getting out and all the parents were picking up their kids. For most, this meant taking them by the hand and walking rather than getting into a car. For the others, this meant putting them on the back of a bike. Just in front of us, a little boy sitting on his mother's bike, and as she passed a storefront, the boy saw one of his friends and his face lit up. He waved and yelled, "Ciao, Lorenzo!!!" "Ciao!" the other boy yelled back with a smile. I know it's not all that different from an American boy saying, "Bye, Johnny!" but something about the back of the bike again made it feel fresh.

Seeing things: I often find myself comparing new cities, places, and even churches to places I've already been or lived. Sometimes I wonder how legitimate these comparisons are. Am I just searching for familiarity, or is there really a similarity? When we were in Israel, for example, I looked over the eastern ridge of Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives, where the landscape quickly descends to desert, and I thought of the transition between Julian and the Anza-Borrego desert in San Diego county. When I mentioned this to our host, the Rev. Bill Broughton, he sort of paused. "Yes, sometimes it's helpful to make those kind of comparisons." But his answer also indicated that sometimes it's not. Here in Florence I find myself thinking of Eugene. I'm not sure this comparison has been made all that many times, to say the least. So maybe I'm just seeing things. Yet as we looked down over the city from a hilltop piazza across the river, I noted all the similarities to Colin: the hills framing the town, the river, the lush green. Of course, Eugene is missing the beautifully dense red rooftop landscape and major features like the Duomo. But I can't seem to stop with these comparisons. Hopefully it doesn't indicate a lack of imagination or openness to truly new experiences.

Earth Tones: One of the most delightful surprises about the cities in Italy has been the earth tones used to color their buildings ... and by extension, their cities. Florence is brown and red and yellow and green and orange: never blue or purple or bright pink or white or unnaturally bright or light shades of red/yellow/green/orange.

Gifts to our Marriage: While Colin and I wrestled with whether or not to take this trip, and thought of it as a sort of field education before seminary - which we both feel it is - other people also encouraged us to see the time as a gift to our marriage. And indeed, it is that too. The other night in Florence we sat in the Piazza Republica and listened to a street opera singer while a nearby carousel lit up both the square and the big arch behind her. We had no place else to go, and we didn't even feel a need to "get home because we have to wake up early to do XXXX tomorrow." This space, which feels more open than any time since our roadtrip to D.C. just weeks after we got married, isn't something we take for granted.

Museum Prep for Seminary: We are both struck by how much we feel the art education we're receiving in Italy is preparing our minds for seminary. Perhaps this isn't surprising, since most of the art is either in or taken from churches, and the themes - religion, the nature of humankind - are ones we expect to wrestle with in divinity school.  But it's surprisingly hard to look at a painting or sculpture without trying to decide what I think about it's expression or representation of god/man/woman. I seem unwilling to simply engage on an aesthetic level. Hopefully I'm not doing the works a disservice in this. I should say that sometimes I AM simply surprised and delighted, as with the David. For me, the most wonderful thing about this most famous man was his ambiguous facial expression. Most guides describe the look as one of sheer determination, as in, "I can totally take this giant," but I saw an equal measure of fear and uncertainty. And the ambiguity between these two opposites was really wonderful, and, I think, really human.

Okay, it's probably too early for this sort of writing, and this post is most certainly too long. The summary would be that Florence is lovely, and we're learning and thinking, but we're also just enjoying spending time together. Sorry if that's a little cheesy, but maybe it becomes less so if I admit that we're both surprised to not yet be tired of spending time almost exclusively with one another :). We've met some friends along the way (like a couple we had dinner with in Volterra, and then Nina Sung - a friend from Stanford - who we randomly ran into at our hostel in Florence), which is really fun. But so is traveling with my husband. (Aaaaaw.)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What Makes Florence So Romantic?

I'm not really sure. But I think the equation goes something like:

Bright blue night sky plus
yellow lights reflecting off glassy river plus
spoonfuls of mint gelato plus
opera-singing in the piazza plus
Michelangelic marble masterpieces

multiplied by a beautiful wife

divided by a 6-bed hostel room.

(Hey, there has to be a reason to return to Florence some day, right? Besides, the hostel serves free omelettes for breakfast!)

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Eating in Italy

Once out of Rome and on to smaller town in Umbria and Tuscany, Laurel and I decided we wanted to prioritize food over just about everything else we could spend money on. Italians don't seem to put much effort into breakfast: usually just bread, jam, and coffee. (However, Nutella is often included, and we recently learned, was invented in Italy. Another reason to love this country.)

For lunch we're perfecting the daily purchase of picnic food at the market, although today I shouldn't have picked the cheapest olives because they tasted pretty nasty. That was alright, though, because I think I just had the best salami of my life. All the cheese is awesome too. We have to cross our fingers every day though that the market hasn't already sold out of pane integrale, whole wheat bread, which they always seem to do. I think they should make more of it for all these picky bread-eating tourists!

Anyway, the point is, we're saving money for dinner, and have had some memorable dishes. Black truffles are super rich mushrooms that they shave on your pasta (when combined with cream sauce, it's right up there with my Favorite Foods ever).

In Volterra, a Tuscan hill town pictured here, we tried a bit of wild boar last night and a local speciality: vegetable and bread soup. Laurel was especially excited to eat vegetables...they seem to take a bit more effort to find around here (and she's not as willing as I am to eat raw zucchini for lunch...)

The hot chocolate's hilarious over here: Laurel's last night looked more like chocolate pudding than a drink!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Peace and Pleasures of Assisi

We're in Assisi, the hometown of St. Francis (or, as they say here, "San Fran-che-sco"). We love it, and are glad we decided to stay for a few nights. Upcoming highlights include a renaissance celebration of spring. But yesterday our highlights were distinct: a 5 mile roundtrip hike to the hermitage -- cave, really -- where St. Francis used to retreat to pray. The views as we hiked straight up the mountain (and then stumbled back down) were breathtaking, and it's easy to imagine why Francesco might have sought out such a sublime space. Then, on a perhaps discordant note, we enjoyed our first "real" Italian meal. So far, we've only been able to afford cheese and bread and take-away pizza. So after saving up, we splurged on a meal with two pastas, a meat, and a vegetable side. It, too, was sublime. We ate each piece of penne a la norciana (penne with pork sausage and cream sauce) individually, savoring each piece and not wanting to overwhelm our senses by eating two pieces of pasta at once. :)

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Loving Italy!

We made it to Rome on Thursday and have been settling in and seeing the sights. I was so happy to get back to the Spanish Steps...there is something so alluring to me about such a beautiful, vibrant public space.

We ended today with a super tasty hot was thick as a milkshake!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

An Education

My mom visited Jerusalem in 1972 for a week or so and left thinking that the experience wasn't so much of a vacation as an education. This made sense to me as I prepared for our trip, but being here feels overwhelming. There's just too much to take in, and each day adds to my mind's muddle! We're taking it easy and getting sleep and eating lots of shwarma, but I think it's tough for even the ubiquitous tour bus riders to avoid the sense of heaviness over this place.

Thursday we visited Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum. As you can imagine, you can't walk through its halls as if it was another history exhibit. This sort of history feels like news I read in the paper yesterday; that's the sort of immediate relevancy that hangs on the words. A guide behind us was showing a group of Israeli soldiers through. The museum ends out in the open air with a beautiful view of the Jerusalem forest and an Israeli community beyond. Much need not be said in words: it is felt and lived every day.

Yesterday we visited Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, the oldest continuing Christian church in the world (it looked like it!) On the way back we waited at least 30 minutes (we were lucky, as the wait can be more than an hour) to cross the checkpoint and pass through the concrete barrier wall. When we reached the front of the line, the Israeli guard motioned for us to stop the car 40 feet away and for the driver, our friend Bill, to walk to him with our passports. Automatic guns were trained at our windshield from the guard tower above while the guard asked Bill what he thought about Israel and what we were doing in Bethlehem. Not surprisingly, we were soon waved through, but not before I was dissuaded from so easily comparing this barrier wall with the U.S.-Mexico border fence.

As an American Christian who's been in this land for just ten days, I'm far from able to speak with any wisdom on the subject of Israeli-Palestinian relations. In fact, I'm tempted to say that it's not my business at all, and yet that doesn't feel right, either. I do know I have a lot more listening and praying to do in seeking where God is in all this.