Once Upon a Time in Italy

 

There’s a picture that hangs in my bedroom. It’s one of those photos which gets more detailed, more rich, the longer you look at it. At first, it’s simply a view of an alley between two buildings. They are stone, very rough and old. Some of their windows are bricked up, others covered with shutters. There are two heavy metal lanterns hung over the alleyway. The alley soon turns into stairs which carves between the buildings and down to a path, which extends through trees to more, smaller houses farther away, then to cypress trees, and then the picture fades into the greens and browns of the countryside, where a little ridge of bluish mountains just barely blocks the horizon. Your eyes double back to the beginning, and you pick out the little tray of blue paint in one doorway, the bright green of a fence, the flaming red of a bush and deeper orange of a roof. Soon your eyes are at the horizon again, at the wispy bluish ridge of hills, and finally up to the cloudy sky marbled with blue.

My cousin Ian took this photo and had it put on a canvas as a wedding present to me and Alex. He took it in Assisi, Italy, going on five years ago when I joined a group from Ian’s school on a two-week tour of Italy, Austria, and Germany. Assisi was the third day of our trip, and it was the first day I actually enjoyed.

When we flew into Rome two days after Christmas, I was already tired and jetlagged. I had never taken such a long flight before. We got to the Rome airport and had a few hours to kill before our bus picked us up, and I was starving so much I ate some really bad pasta. Truly, truly terrible. I thought, hey, it’s Rome; they can’t get pasta wrong, right? Wrong. My mom literally makes better pasta, and she’s not Italian at all. Maybe they should have American moms of Irish descent working at the Rome airport.

But I digress. That first night in Rome, I threw up about three times, and I went down to breakfast the next morning, gagged at the sight of a croissant, and told Ian I was going back to bed. He very sweetly delivered me some bread and jam before they all left on the day’s sightseeing, and gave me the phone number of the nearest pizza place in case I miraculously desired Italian food again. And then I was alone in a strange hotel, in a foreign city, with nothing to do because the internet wasn’t working and I only had one book.

So I cried for my Irish mom who made better pasta than the schmucks at the Rome airport.

At one point, the maid tried to come in to clean up the room, so I had to turn her away apologetically. Thankfully, “no” is no in Italian too. But I didn’t know how to say “I’m sorry,” because I’d prepared more for the German leg of the trip, so I just shrugged and looked as ill as possible. Then I spent the rest of the day sleeping and eating croissants and jam. At one point I went out on the balcony and took in the balmy, sunny weather of a December day in Rome. And something about that smell of warmth in the air made it a little better. Nice days smell very similar, no matter where you go in the world.

The next day, we packed up our bus and drove north. A long bus trip is probably the worst thing you can do after being sick off bad Italian airport pasta. I felt woozy and wobbly, and stared out the window as far to the horizon as I could. Ian kept me supplied with croissants and sour gummy candy. Soon the stucco and dirt of the city were swaddled by the blanket-like countryside, small and massive scraps of farmland stitched together with lines of cypress trees. We passed villas and cottages and forests and rivers, and it was everything you imagine when you read the storybooks.

At some point in the afternoon the land became more hilly. We went through a village which looked too fragile to let a big tour bus go through it, and we charged up a hill which was suddenly swarmed with more cars we’d seen all day, and we parked in a lot full of tourists. I wondered if they too had tried the bad airport pasta.

“We’re here! This is Assisi,” our guide said.

A parking lot full of tourists. This would be Assisi. I wanted to go back to the bus and sleep with my croissants. But true to my nature, I followed the rest of the group as we alighted a very modern-looking, a very long, staircase that led up the hill. Despite my wobbling knees and aching head and sloshing stomach, I followed the mob of fellow tourists. (Side note: I’ve read that based on my personality, I’m susceptible to cults. Who knew.) When we finally got to the top, there was nothing but a driveway leading further up the hill. Oh, lovely. My favorite thing is to document driveways around the world. This would be an excellent addition to my collection. But the mob pressed on, and up the driveway we went.

And suddenly, the driveway became cobblestone, and suddenly, it led through a tawny stone gate with opened doors. And as the mob of tourists floated through with cult-susceptible me in tow, it was like another world opened up on the hill, and it was bigger and more beautiful than it seemed it could be. Suddenly I was surrounded by stone houses and cobblestone streets and colorfully-painted doors and alleys pancaked on each other and stairs leading up to gardens or down to shadows. This was Assisi.

Hundreds of tourists were all packed into this little, ancient city, yet it seemed there was more than enough room for us all. The place was bigger on the inside. We were only there for an afternoon, but I don’t think we could’ve seen it all even if we spent our entire two weeks there. Despite the hubbub, the tourists and the Christmas lights and shops selling cheap mementos, I felt like I was back in time, or out of time, and it was a giddy feeling. My headache mellowed. My knees were stronger.

At lunchtime our group broke off to find food, and Ian and I stepped into a little sandwich shop and got paninis with tomato, mozzarella, and basil. We ate outside in a courtyard where small, shiny Fiats and BMWs occasionally came through, honking at the droves of tourists. It was a mostly cloudy day, but the sky was marbled with blue, and little mists of rain mixed with the stone and made that peppery scent in your nose. I nervously bit into my sandwich, hyper aware of my sensitive stomach. But the first bite went well, and then the second, and soon I was really eating Italian food, good Italian food not from the Rome airport. I realized I did like Italy after all. Assisi saved Italy for me.

We spent the rest of the afternoon milling around. Ian and I took pictures of each other and of all the same sights. We snuck pictures inside the Basilica of Saint Francis. We both took the same shot of that alley with the lanterns. It was my favorite scrap of Assisi, and that’s a hard choice to make.

And so now, almost five years later, that shot is what hangs in my bedroom. I look at it every now and then, and I appreciate it, of course. But I very rarely really look at it, closely, until recently.

A lot of change is coming in the next few months. Some of it I know, and some I feel. Some, to be fair, is probably imagined. But I don’t deal with any change, real or imagined, very well. Even though I know life contains change, and I know we would all be miserable without it, and I know I’m excited overall, there’s still that nagging fear of unpleasantness and mess I must push through in order to reach some equilibrium again.

And then I look at the picture of my favorite alley in Assisi. I remember that tiring first morning at the airport in Rome, that awful first night throwing up in Rome, the awkward second day driving out a maid in Rome, and finally that glorious third day in Assisi. I remember all the nerves and stress and hunger and illness finally dissolving as the Tuscan countryside swaddled it up and gave me one of the best experiences of my life. And I realize that all change, no matter how unpleasant, is only the jet lag, the food poisoning, the tourist-infested parking lot, the driveway, the ancient gate to a beautiful experience. In the end, it’s that beauty I remember; it’s that favorite view I hang on the wall. The joy is what lasts and what matters.

Later that day, we had authentic Italian lasagna for dinner. My mom’s lasagna is way better.

 

Everything is Beautiful

With the arrival of March, we enter “Still Winter”, a season known to the rest of the world as “Spring”, and one of the most depressing parts of the year in Western PA. The weather is a yo-yo. You can literally wear shorts one day and a parka the next (this week was like that).

1-IMG_8080.JPG

I used to hate this time of year. Every warm day made me incredibly giddy, but with every temperature drop my hopes were dashed. More than once I’ve trekked through snow on the way to church Easter morning, snow boots paired with a floral dress.

Last year I focused on just getting through winter to better days, and this year I tried to love it while it was here. And I’ve realized after everything that I actually absolutely love Still Winter.

There’s something about the the trees so bare and the grass and brush so many different shades of brown, all waiting for something to happen, that gives you this sense of incredible hope. The tops of the trees are thick with tiny buds, which will burst out in a week if we have a good stretch of warm days. And time seems thinner; I feel the accumulated hope of many years and generations all coming together with the spring.

Everywhere I look I see something beautiful. It’s usually very mundane things, like a house or a bush or a rock and some snow. But I can’t help it. My eyes get pulled in and I can’t stop staring and feasting on the beauty. There are things I think are so beautiful and I can’t explain why.

This weekend starts Spring Break. While Alex will be spending it in sunny South Carolina with his sports team, I will be in sunny Oil City, PA. It’ll be nice to catch up with family and friends, even if the weather doesn’t cooperate (I lied. It’s not that sunny).

My town is a forgotten one, a place that used to be great and isn’t, and I think that sense of failure and hopelessness is unconsciously imprinted onto everyone’s mind. Facebook has a meme page for Oil City, with some referring to it as the Elephant Graveyard from The Lion King. Lovely stuff.

But there is beauty there, too. There are tree-covered hills healed from decades of abuse, majestic brick buildings and painted gingerbread houses built by old millionaires. There are good people who need hope, who need to look at things and be captivated by beauty without understanding why.

So that’s what I’ll be thinking about this spring break and Still Winter. I hope I run into others who think about it too. And I think that practicing that kind of focus can do some amazing things. I’ll have to try and see.

 

 

Spring Has Sprung, and So Do I.

It’s a warm sunny day here in Western PA, and I am sitting at the coffee shop with a glass of Mango Ceylon ice tea.

IMG_6120

Two of my sisters and I went out for Korean food. I’ve hadn’t had it before, but let me tell you: Korean barbecue is the bestest.

IMG_6119

That green stuff is spinach, sautéed with sesame oil and spices. It definitely makes spinach more palatable. The thing I hate most is soggy, moldy-tasting spinach. >_<

IMG_6105

Spring has sprung! Tiny green buds are popping from tree branches, waking up and stretching out in the warm sun. Every year I know it will happen, and yet every year I am enchanted and filled with delight from my head to my toes. I dance around stupidly and sing songs from The Sound of Music with gusto. I bounce around like, well, a spring (see what I did there?).

IMG_6071

Why is that? We all are refreshed one way or another by spring. There is something about the warm rich smell of dirt that makes our hearts skip a beat. Somehow, by the smells and the light and the textures and colors and tastes and sounds, we are filled with ridiculous, familiar hope.

IMG_6095

I like to think that that feeling of utter joy was meant to be there all the time. God intended for us to always be delighting in His creation, be it through nature or through each other. But when sin entered the world, so did violence and ugliness and lost innocence. Now the pockets of joy we find are hard to come by, hard even to afford.

IMG_6099

But at springtime, we feel that joy again. And it is so familiar, and so natural, that we all long for a time when we can be free to feel it without guilt, pain, or heaviness.

Someday we will.

Poppet

Happy New Year!!

It’s hard to imagine that the year 2015 is here! Last year I spent this day exploring Salzburg, Austria, and although this year’s festivities were much more laid back, I am blessed to be surrounded with the people I love most in my dear good old hometown. A year brings a lot of change, but I am thankful for it and a lot more hopeful about change now than I have been in the past, which is another thing to be grateful for!

IMG_2625

Today’s poem is sort of dark/deep for such a holiday, but it’s something I’ve had on my mind lately. Here is 

 

Poppet

 

Come dress me up,

for I am your doll.

Put me in pin curls

and cinch me up small.

 

Come paint my face

with talc, kohl, and clay.

Make sure my lashes

curl, last all day.

 

Come dress me up,

in all the fine gowns,

wrap me in silver

and give me a crown.

 

Come grace my neck

in glittering gems,

put me in spike heels

hid under my hem.

 

Come dress me up

and pose me just right,

I’m just a doll;

I’ll be here all night.

 

I think about the women on magazine covers, the ones robed in the latest fashions with airbrushed faces and perfect figures; and about the models that saunter up and down runways, wearing bland and sometimes angry expressions, devoid of personality like walking billboards; or even the actresses in films, curated like the finest gardens in order to appeal to the masses. Sadness tinges my soul, because I realize that to the world they are only dolls.

I don’t mean to shame women who choose those careers. It would be fun to get to play dress up and get paid for it, and the majority of these people choose to do it. They are not slaves. They are not forced. They are not exploited. 

But something in me still recoils, even minimally, because I see where the seemingly innocuous world of glittering lights, fashion and beauty becomes a way for us to make dolls, playthings, poppets out of our fellow human beings. As people, we love beauty. But when we find it, just enjoying and appreciating it is not enough for us. We must perfect it or obtain more of it. Beauty is a drug that helps us to forget the world’s ugliness. An actress on a magazine cover, no matter how beautiful, powerful, smart, kind, or influential she is as a person, remains an image to us, an image we see over and over again in magazine after magazine, film after film. She is stripped of her humanity and becomes something pretty to look at. Our quest to obtain beauty becomes ugliness. 

What are we to do, then? I think the answer lies in remembering who we are as human beings. The Bible says that we are created in the image of God, and therefore each person is precious and beautiful. To God, beauty is not just in a person’s image. We are told that “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7b).

Foolish people that we are, we usually assume that outward beauty is the sole definition of beauty, but it isn’t. Many people are physically beautiful but internally grotesque. If we valued internal beauty as much as we value the external, I believe that we would learn to see that girl on a magazine as more than just an image, more than just a doll to play dress up with. We would see her and each other fully, looking beyond the outside to what is truly valuable within. We would see the complete person, not just her image digitally collected, manipulated, and printed onto some paper. 

So if I could challenge you (and myself) this year, I would urge you not to treat your fellow (wo)man like a doll. Look beyond the outward appearance to the heart. You may not always like what you see, but at least you will see the people around you for who they truly are. I guarantee that along the way you will find beauty, and you will become better at recognizing what beauty truly is. 

Happy New Year, friends. God bless!

.

Irony

Happy Thursday! Aren’t you so glad for the weekend? I can’t wait!

I wanted to offer another poem today. (Like I’ve said, I’ve been writing a lot!)

I call this one “Irony”. It came out of me thinking about how ironically beautiful and yet at the same time anguished the world is. Natural disasters, plagues, the food chain. That’s just the nature end of things. Add humanity into the mix and the list of anguishes gets longer.

However, this is not how things were meant to be. When mankind acted in disobedience to God, bringing the curse of sin upon the world, we did not just curse ourselves; we cursed creation too.

“For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it… For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” (Romans 8:20,22).

The world which should have been beautiful and full of joy became ugly and full of pain. And yet, it still has some semblance of beauty. It still has some joy in it. And this bears witness to the hope we have, that someday Christ will come and make all things new again. The beauty that once was will be again.

But until then, we have the job of reminding the world of its beauty. And by world I mostly mean people. And that’s hard. Because for all the beauty that people can create, they can also author some pretty disgusting ugliness. Sometimes even we, intending to bring beauty, find ourselves the bringers of ugliness. But the importance is in trying, in getting up each day and purposing in our hearts to communicate God’s great love, mercy, and beauty to an increasingly loveless, dying, ugly world. That’s one heck of a job, but He’s given it to us. And with His strength (gosh, only with His strength) we can remind the world of its beauty and fight the ugliness,

fight the irony.

 

DSC_0849 1
(state game lands, Pennsylvania)

       

 

 Irony

 

Across the rocks of emerald moss,

across the mountain’s crest,

I walk and ponder life’s great loss,

the death of all the best.

 

Across the streets of greasy stone,

between the towers of steel,

I trudge and ponder those alone,

devoid of all that’s real.

 

Across the paths of hemlock pines,

and lanes of lush green grass,

I stroll and ponder better times,

empires of oil and brass.

 

Across the scrubby, boiling sand,

the arid plains of waste,

I trek and ponder Christian hands,

in vain they made their haste.

 

Across the rug between the panes,

stained red to match His blood,

I plod and ponder us who bask

in comfort, doing “good”.

 
 

Thanks for reading!

Hannah

(Poem and photography by Hannah Allman)