Is voting like going to church for you?

Obama first won the presidency at a critical moment in my political development. I didn’t consider myself a Christian anarchist yet, but I was worried all the hope and attention pinned on voting for this one secular leader was bound to disappoint. There was so much optimism then and I just didn’t feel it. I knew folks would vote for him and then sit back on their hands waiting for him to make miracles. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my mom talking about what it meant to have a black president and her telling me how it was incredibly meaningful, wrapped up in history, political movements, and where we were as a country. “Besides,” she said “you simply cannot argue that McCain would have made life easier for poor people in the way Obama simply cannot ignore doing.”  I was not so sure.

Here we are 8 years later in the midst of an even crazier, longer and strangely familiar election cycle. Where will this one end?  Are you hopeful?

I’ve been watching the US election for the last 9 months from abroad, and it’s sobering to see how important such a complete farce is to the whole rest of the world.  The impact of who we elect as President of the United States has unquestionably far reaching impact globally, and from this far away I’m just reminded of how petty and superficial the whole process really is for many Americans. It frequently feels like we’re trying to pacify our guilty consciences by throwing change into a panhandler’s hat.  I’m not saying it doesn’t make any different to the panhandler, but frequently we’re motivated by fleeting fears that never materialize into tangible actions to actually end poverty.  We’re not voting with our feet.

At the same time I am really missing my religious community back in the states.  As a Quaker, my faith community is the equivalent of the “United States Pirate Party” in the sense we’d never get elected running on our own platform (anymore).  Many of us are pretty involved in the current political system though by voting, advocating and even serving in office.  I would say on average we’re more politically involved than the majority of the US electorate.  As a faith tradition we emphasize living your faith every day, and for some people this means advocating for political leadership that supports values we discern to be important (even if they’re endorsed by Henry Kissinger )

Now that I’m living in Italy I’ve been attending Mass more regularly because that’s the most available spiritual community here.  I really do enjoy it in many ways, though I will never feel completely at home there.  The local priest has roped us into helping out with several projects around the parish, and in some ways helping our community outside of “church time” actually feels like a closer expression of my faith than sitting in Mass.

All this has me thinking about how much we think about voting or “going to Church”, sometimes even lying about it, when really what’s most important is how we actually live our lives.  Do you really feel satisfied once you’ve filled in your ballot or got up from your pew that you’ve really accomplished something?  I don’t. At best, I frequently feel like I’ve thrown some change in a hat.  In some ways, voting or even spiritual services feel so “imperfect” in their expressions of conviction that I feel that much more obligated to go out and actually do something.

I really appreciated this episode of “On the Media” (one of my new favorite podcasts) that explored third party candidates and the idea of “spoilers” in the general election recently.  One of the main takeaways for me among the differing opinions is that voting is really one thing that we do, among many, as an expression of our civic and moral belief. I still plan to vote and keep attending Catholic Church for the time being, but I’m really not pinning any hope there.  On the one hand I know if I don’t vote (if my overseas ballot is counted anyway) or go to Church I could still feel like I was involved and living my faith, but I’d also just miss out on a collect experience that is important far beyond me and my life. Doesn’t that sound like practicing a living faith or being an involved community member?

 

 

 

 

Adoration and Authority

I spent a few days this last week in the Alps with members of my wife Federica’s Catholic community, the Pope John XXIII Association (APGXXIII), on a spiritual retreat.  We stayed in a beautiful hotel built for disabled teens by the community founder, Don Oreste Benzi, who called Catholics to serve the poor and marginalized as a basis of their spiritual discipline.  I’ve had a few other experiences with “the Community” in my various visits here (one described here) and even Italian Quakers, but this was my first real opportunity for corporate intercultural, interreligious dialogue in this place I may one day call home.  (Of course I’ve also only just reached a capacity in Italian to make this possible. Even now, a fail-safe uncomprehending but interested smile helps fill in the inevitable lulls. )

The format of this retreat was the first thing to strike me as different.  I was blessed to attend my first New Year’s Silent Retreat hosted by Pacific Northwest Quarterly Meeting this January, and I suppose I had expected a similar approach here.  When Quakers talk about silence, we really mean silent.  This spiritual retreat last week, called a “desert”, was decidedly more “reflective.”  While Federica assures me there are more silent “desert” experiences organized by the APGXXIII community, I found the stereotypical boisterous Catholic milieu natural considering the communal, Mediterranean sensitivities of the faithful here. An interesting exception is the rite of  “Adoration”, in which gathered worshippers pray or sit silently in somewhat improvisational fashion before the consecrated host.  The Eucharist is truly the manifest Christ as the focus of Adoration, in much the same way we Friends seek and occasionally transmogrify Him invisibly in worship.   For someone unused to Catholicism’s highly organized worship, good-natured arguments on the liturgical calendar, and tactile sensibilities, Adoration made me feel suddenly at home and also strangely uneasy. Whenever someone sang or vocalized a prayer during Adoration, I’d think “Ok now, HERE’S where we get back into the program,”  or as silent seconds turned to minutes I’d ask myself “Can I really settle in now?”

A nightlong vigil before the host offered me the opportunity to pray in complete silence, before the Christ both within and without, unconcerned with possible interruptions.  Somehow this felt sheltered, contrived.  It made me think of the folks at meeting who rush to turn off the coffee pot if someone accidentally tries to turn it on before worship.  Isn’t Christ always present and available to us, regardless of outward distractions?

Another fascinating exercise at this desert where discussions by the priest on aspects of this year’s community theme of “obedience.”  This is definitely a term we Friends struggle with, as do the fairly radical members of this community.  Obedience is considered not just obedience to outward authorities within the Church, but obedience to the needs of the poor, the Jesus’ call to action, to individual leadings and vocation.   I did find the discussion on obedience to outward authority one of the most interesting, especially as the key thing Friends chose to renounce when we went our separate way.  The priest spoke about how we are called to challenge our authorities within the faith, fervently and clearly, but that once a decision has been made by those above us in the Church we are bound to respect and abide by it.  We could be surprised or even confused by the result.  He used the example of how when St. Francis was inspired to form a new order, he began to put the pieces in place but quickly went to Rome to ask for the Pope’s blessing.  Apparently there is a famous Italian film in which St. Francis is depicted approaching the Pope at the time, known as corrupt and dripping in gold and jewels.  The gathered priests and cardinals turn up their noses at the ragged, dirty monk as he approaches the throne.  Though he had prepared a lengthy appeal to ask for the Pope’s approval to form this new order, upon approaching His Holiness he threw all caution to the wind and ad-libbed a passionate but humble request to re-imagine the Church’s calling.  The rest is history, though the key part of this story for the gathered community members was the Divine inspiration that moved the apparent monolith of Church Authority.  I mused to myself:  What if we Quakers tried to make another visit to the Vatican, to see if our approach to things could be recognized by St. Francis’ namesake?

Watching the World Cup in Castel Volturno

This is an unpublished post edited from a first draft I wrote in 2010 while living in Italy during the World Cup.  I’ve been reflecting a lot on the situation of immigrants here, especially as Europe experiences deep economic crisis and Italian xenophobia is ever-present and particular poignant for me as a privileged outsider.  We are currently hosting an intern from Burkina Faso at the moment at the farm, and his occasional comments about the challenge of living here, as well as the strange position I’ve been thrust into as his kind of supervisor, really reminds me of this experience a few years back:

Though I couldn’t be considered a real soccer (sports) fan in any respect, I’ve always really enjoyed the World Cup.  Teams from all over the world, different playing styles, strange loyalties.  I’m into it, and at least the last three tournaments have punctuated interesting moments in my life, times when I’ve been involved in crazy situations on the brink of entering new ones.  I sense this might be another and when I’m far away from home I feel at least 6 times more patriotic.

We all know about Italians and football, though I’ve been hanging out around a crowd who don’t really care much for it.  They care enough to disparage the US and its poor sporting reputation, but as the former champions eliminated in the first round I got the last laugh on that one this time.

I got to watch us sputter and go out on Saturday night surrounded by 200 Ghanians [Ghana eliminated the US 2-1 in overtime].  Now, to be fair, I don’t know if every man was from Ghana.[my privilege speaking again] I certainly did not identify myself as a US fan hoping to get a feel from the crowd.  Fede and I were visiting a town in the South of Italy, near Naples, called Castel Volturno.  Mention its name (or better yet, your travel plans there) to most Italians and you will get  post-Katrina New Orleans tooth sucking reactions.  It’s considered a lawless, Mafia-controlled toxic waste dump full of illegal immigrants.  Many immigrants come to the semi-apocalyptic resort town because of its reputation for extra-governmental legal systems, empty houses built as tax shelters and the like.  One could consider this either a draw or the result of being turned away at every other turn.

While we were there before the game, I spoke with some of the guys who described their three day trips from Libya across the sea to Sicily, only to be picked up and sent to camps called CPTs.  They’re held at the camps for various lengths of time until they’re just dumped, without any legal status, into the Italian wilds.  That’s how it’s been described to me.  Even for those not living in Castel Volturno, life as black or Arab immigrant seems very tough here.  Right in Federica’s valley near Forli there are a huge number of immigrants working low-wage jobs at the local chicken factory.  Even though this seems like a country paradise to me with white skin and easy legal status, most immigrants are clearly very marginalized and isolated here.  No halal butchers posting their wares.  No visible immigrant support center. (I found it by accident while making a visit to the local provincial offices.  One part time, and very kind, Italian women works there.)

As the World Cup game wound down and the US was clearly not going to win, the crowd started to slowly disperse. Night fell and the parking lot with a projector screen set up in it became more empty every time I looked around.  By the time the game was over, the subdued celebrations were only obvious for a few minutes before folks left entirely.   I was struck by how I might have reacted as a fair weather fan if we’d won.

Italian TV

After several visits to Italy and confirmation that I have not said anything about this before, I must comment briefly on the absurdity of Italian TV.  In order to be a truly informed anthropologist I should have watched more TV in the States before arriving in Italy but in a certain way, without comparison, I am shocked all the more by what I see here.

One of the things that is always interesting is to watch how folks outside the US view tragedies at home.  The recent marathon tragedy is an example.  Just like in 2001, (and for some reason the many horrible events that have taken place in the US while I’ve been abroad), media here assumes that whoever carries out a violent act against the US will inevitably meet a quick and violent end.  It’s a forgone conclusion, and so there is little hysteria about manhunts, fair trials, ethnicities of perpetrators, etc. which is a big story for crimes here. (It’s very interesting when the two worlds collide, like in the case of the girl from Seattle acquitted but by Italian popular opinion guilty of killing her roommate.) It’s not to say these stories don’t get a lot of airtime, but it seems like an unspoken understanding the US has lots of enemies  but there’s always a bloody end for anyone who does us wrong.  It’s an interesting perspective, and one I imagine we lose as folks cry out for blood after terrible tragedies.  I don’t condone the violence of terrorists or the State or State terrorism, but what can we expect to gain from this cycle of violence?

On a completely different other side of things is being slightly horrified by “entertainment TV”.  In Italy there is the universally recognized role of the velina, or sidekick showgirl, who dances between commercial breaks and makes seductive passes at the show hosts but never speaks.  They are particularly famous on one show a news parody program that aims to humiliate various personalities in the news, and apparently women try out across Italy to become the following season’s velina.   I knew I was living in a truly bizzare media driven world when I watched these women pole dance to Macklemore’s single “Thrift Shop” the other day. I can remember the first time I heard “My Oh My” on Live from I-5 hosted by DJ Luvva J as he made a shout out to a young MC who’d graduated from Evergreen.  The crazy juxtapositions are everywhere:  Show hosts here often hawk all type of products during the commercial breaks of their very same show, yet even so it was pretty wild to watch the host of a “Who wants to be a millionaire?”-style show ask a question about porn star celebrity weddings just seconds before cutting to a commercial break where he pitches a new child car seat.

A Californian Vision

It reached 80 degrees in Cazadero on the ranch!
It reached 80 degrees in Cazadero on the ranch!
Federica and Lila with burning wings on Ocean Beach, San Francisco
Federica and Lila with burning wings on Ocean Beach, San Francisco

I reconciled myself to having a different attitude about California about 5 years ago, when I drove my newly purchased 1982 Yamaha Vision to San Francisco from Olympia. At the time, my attitude about California was that it seemed shallow and consumer-driven. Contempt prior to investigation.  It was an interesting period for me, right about the era I began this blog in preparation for a trip to Palestine and my heart warmed a little in the sunshine and landscape I saw.  I was struggling on a personal level, trying to figure out my life purpose, and the motorcycle was “witness” to that period in ways I’m still only just understanding.

I sold the Vision as I reached the Bay to an old friend living in the hills of Western Sonoma County. My friend Frank was looking for just that kind of motorcycle, and at the time I didn’t feel so attached or appreciative of it.  Almost 5 years later, he passed away unexpectedly recently and at his memorial his family suggested I come back to pick up the bike. He was such a kind man, and his love of mechanics (especially marginal ones) meant a lot to me as I thought about him and that vehicle.  As Federica and I prepare to travel to Italy for 5 months and my job wound down, we had some time to make a visit.  I didn’t know what condition the motorcycle was now in, but regardless our main interest was taking a kind of honeymoon and visiting our many friends (grieving, recently moved, old and new) down there.  If all went well, we’d motor home on the bike along Highway 1 as our return trip.

3 lambs were born in the week we stayed in Sonoma County, these one's are minutes old.
3 lambs were born in the week we stayed in Sonoma County, these one’s are minutes old.

We have spent the last two weeks wandering San Francisco’s Mission district full of murals and encroaching gentrification, burning a new friend’s artwork on the beach with her for a film project, traveling into the hills to live entirely off the grid, catching rides all over backcountry roads, and connecting with the restorative power of community.  We have not been riding a motorcycle. While Persephone, as I now remember I called her, may one day ride again, at the moment she will bask (languish?) a bit longer in the warm Californian sun.  She now holds a more complete story of origin and a myth for me, as a point of reference in the last 5 formative years of my life.   We did a little ceremony at the ranch to appreciate the tools in our lives for the service they provide us, and I reflected on how a tool can serve a purpose we didn’t plan for it at all.  Persephone now carries a little bit of Frank for me and she’s fired inspiration and driven me places without even starting to leave the driveway.

 

Easter

I’ve decided I really enjoy places that show their seasons. Being from the Northwest, which does have distinct seasons but doesn’t always display them nicely, the dormant/cold to lush/warm cycle I first discovered in North Carolina has become a spiritual ritual for me. I travel so much I miss it by default but this year has been awesome.

I arrived in Italy this time from the cold in Washington, only to find an even colder and barer landscape. Everyone was hunkered down for the winter and by arriving in January I almost feel like I disturbed their hibernation. In the Villagio della Gioia, we shuffled through the mud because we had too. Arriving in Israel I could see they were just breaking free of winter, the tail ends of rain for them brought another meter of snow in Italy I missed completely.

Now I come back and it’s Gorgeous. Spring is gorgeous. Villafranca, the area around the villagio, is full of orchards now in bloom. Cherries and apples and many things I don’t recognize. One of my favorite things is to see the pruned branches blooming in the grass below the riot of blossoms above. It reminds me of the image of Christ, cut from humanity but still with us in spirit, expending all His earthly energy in Love.

I ate rabbit for an easter meal today. It’s part of a balanced Romangolo diet; they think more about doves than rabbits at this time of year. I enjoyed it, symbolism be damned.

Harder to Stay than I thought

It’s not really slowed down at all here. We’ve just gotten back from a 4 day trip to Torino and surrounding areas for a series of talks. It’s a beautiful part of Italy I rarely thought about before the Olympics were here a few years back. I guess it’s been 4 years and I’m not even paying attention to the ones going on right now

There’s plenty to think about.  It’s not as easy as I thought to just wander the earth.  Turns out there is a wave of anti-immigration sentiment in this country and my place here, as blessed as I am, is challenged as a result.   There’s signs of  changing demographics all around.  Just up the road from Fede’s family’s farm, the little town of Galeata has the largest percentage of immigrants as it’s total population in all of Italy. It’s not big and not terribly strange to me as person raised in the nation of immigrants but I can tell people aren’t really advertising their diversity.   There’s folks from West Africa, Eastern Europe, Morocco and Northern Africa.  They’ve come to do much of the same work that immigrants do in the US.  Cleaning houses, manual labor, etc.  The folks up the road mostly work in a huge chicken processing plant. 

Many Italians appear to be freaking out about this.  Especially in this conservative, white Northern part of the country, many figures in politics are capitalizing on the age-old fear of change to gain political points.  The Lega Nord, one of the most extreme right parties (who flesh out the radical fringe of Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition) are reportedly famous for open support of fascism and accusations that immigrants are subhuman.  These guys have proposed succeeding from poorer, darker Southern Italy even.   

I come into this picture as a small drop in the ‘extracommunitarian’ unEuropean wave.  New legislation and widespread mistrust have made it harder and harder to get a visa to stay here.   After visiting office after office, talking to person after person who half-knows a part of increasing net of red tape, I’m really feeling a lot of sympathy for the people who really want to come here just to feed their families.  I’m white.  I’ve got options.  But if I want to stay here I have to go through a whole series of hoops that could take years.  I’d like to try but I can’t even apply from inside the country I’m learning.   What about all the other folks just looking for a break?  This country’s riches, like my own, are built on the backs of the poor. 

To add insult to injury, those folks that DO make it here, like those in the US, are increasingly subject to really bald racism.  Take this sign we came across in one of the little villages we spoke in yesterday.

We met with folks from this town and asked what they thought about their mayor posting signs like this at every entrance to their village.  They all seemed to be appalled, but apparently it’s been years they’ve been up and they’re still there. 

I didn’t get a chance to take a picture of my addition to this sign, but it felt like a bit of a hopeless gesture on my part.  Shame on them.

Talking Terra Santa

“But what about the yellers?” It was a question I asked myself as much as Fede before her last speaking engagement.  A regular part of speaking publically about the Middle East, in my experience, is dealing with the various crackpots, quarrelers and raging idealogues poised with attacks for every word you say.

Realizing  peace is about educating people though, OD volunteers commonly spend much of their “time off” in country speaking to as many people as possible about their work.  I’ve attended 2 of these speeches now, not just to provide logistical support but also for the cultural comparison of seeing how Italians react to what they see.

It’s been interesting.  The first speech was in the Northern part of the province, Ferrara, incidentally scheduled for the same day as the major blizzard that swept across here in strange patches.  As we made our way there through a thick blanket of snow, we heard that “the buses” bringing her audience we coming anyway.  Buses?  Whaaa?  Upon arriving we found very little snow but  a whole gymful of kids of all ages playing games.  Apparently this was some kind of Catholic Youth Day with “Peace” as its theme.  Fede had originally been prepped for a talk with a “small group of middle schoolers.”  What it actually ended up being was 15 minutes with the 80 or so kids whose buses actually arrived. Who knows what effect the pictures of dead animals and nonviolent resistance had on them.

Yesterday night was the second outing. We wound our way up into the hills not far away to stop in a charming little village along a medieval wall.  The venue was “The Peacock Tree”, a little old school cafe that hosts leftish gatherings, nonviolence discussions, and poetry readings in the local dialect, Romagnolo. (Selections from Feb lineup:  “Chickenlegs”-Italians do rockabilly/surf “Waltzing Mathilda”- Italians do Irish[?] Man talks about Fungi and climate change, etc)  The mix of down-home cultural revival and political consciousness was cool, surrounded by antique furnishings, posters of Native American chiefs and the various quotes attributed to them translated into Italian, and birdcalls from what must have been quite an aviary upstairs.

Now, the yellers.  They were there yesterday, though not amongst the kids the other day.  It’s amazing to me that even when someone takes pains to explain that their efforts are really not explicitly political, that they only support nonviolence, and that they really are not there to offer any conclusive answers on anything, people still demand answers on politics, violence, and general conclusions for everything.

Overall the event was charming and fun.  I should have asked how to say “yeller” in Romagnolo though.

So cold, so cold

It’s been really really cold all the time. Until today.

Up until today, I had felt a little duped by this whole Mediterranean promise. Where were all the pleasant Italian moments basking in the long rays of sunshine? So it’s wintertime, but at least a coffee on the terrace during a mild january sunset? I had my first one today…. I shouldn’t complain though, all the sweeter for the waiting.
Especially after a blizzard shutdown the freeway on sunday and everybody had a little freakout.  (They stopped the entire 3 lanes of traffic and I waited for an hour for one, count him one, policeman to ask me if I was carrying chains on board.  Give me liberty or give me death!) 

The hard dirt that is everywhere in the village is now muddy and ubiquitous.  I’ve prepared some fruit trees for planting.  Cherries, apricots, mandarins!  so there’s promise of spring!  I’m ready! 

I’ve discovered a little side road that goes out to the river that runs behind my house about  a kilometer off.  Today I took a little gaggle of the village children on an ‘english walk’ to the river, theoretically conversing exclusively in english.   We sang the ‘you smell like a monkey’ version of the birthday song and crushed melting ice with our muddy boots.  good times.

Quaker meeting in Bologna

It’s been really chaotic lately in my life with the hustle of the family all around. I found a moment of much needed stillness this morning at the Bologna worship group that Marisa Johnson of the FWCC helped me get in touch with.

It was a familiar little circle of older gentleman gathered in “the Peace School” in Bologna. Like most thing’s these days, I don’t really catch all the details of the introductions or summaries of most experiences but charge into them as they come. I gathered that the 4 gentlemen are associated with the university (oldest in Europe) and have a leftish bent. An Italian translation of Thich Nhat Han involving something to do with leaving our bodies may have been involved

Anyway, I leave my body often here. When everyone is talking at once around me or I’m tired and sick or I don’t find the topic of conversation very interesting it’s amazingly possible to turn off my brain. Wind it down. It can be a little disconcerting when this happens all the time but I absolutely need it as a kind of defense sometimes.

It’s strange to enjoy the sound of my thoughts in silence though. Usually when my mind races in meeting I try to shut it off, but today it felt fine to have a little moment surrounded by others where I could just do my thing. I actually appreciated the fact it was only 45 minutes too