Category Archives: Travel

St. Francis: Before and After

While the life of St. Francis as we know it is a pastiche of a few facts and a lot of myths, everyone agrees that he went through a series of profound and wrenching experiences that lead to a radical change of his values and his way of life.  There are two sculptures here in Assisi that capture his process of conversion in ways that I find graphic and moving.  In front of the main Basilica we see this:


and at the lovely church/hermitage of San Damiano we see this:


The broken man on the horse represents Francis returning to Assisi in shame after renouncing his glorious dreams of military adventure.  Two years earlier, he had been on the losing side of a bloody battle between the cities of Assisi and Perugia, and after seeing many of his friends hacked to pieces, he was imprisoned in a dungeon for a year before his father managed to raise his ransom.  Some modern authors assert that Francis suffered from a form of PTSD that sent him into a dark night of questioning his very identity. He was 22 years old.

After a period of intense soul searching, he attempted to recapture his sense of who he was by enlisting in another military campaign heading to the South of Italy. He got only as far as Spoleto, a town just a few miles away from Assisi.  Here he had a deep realization that the world in which he was living was topsy-turvy.  Most people who called themselves Christian had little use for the teachings of Jesus that encouraged peace and poverty of spirit.  Love of enemies and living a simple life with trust in the Divine seemed to be values honored in words but mocked in daily life.

Thus he turned his back on his upper middle class life, and decided that one was either a Christian or not.  Cherry picking the Gospels seemed a betrayal that was rampant in the 13th century–from the top down.  There were many movements of religious awakening in those days, such as the Cathars and the Waldensians, but for reasons I will pursue in another essay, they were ultimately condemned by the institutional church and many of their adherents were burned at the stake.  Francis himself escaped this fate although some of his most faithful followers were executed after his death.  But that is another story.

For now, let us simply remember that he managed to remain a faithful Catholic and went about his Father’s business of love and healing.  Much is made of his extreme asceticism and life of poverty, but this could be an exaggeration intended to idealize his sainthood by his early biographers.  He was certainly more ascetic than I would wish to be, but I think his most characteristic and charismatic feature was his unwavering love for God and human beings and nature.  Given the context of the 13th century, I think it is this Love that set him apart, and called over 5000 followers to his community in a very few years.  It is this love and peace that I see in the sculpture at San Damiano.  His journey to that beautiful place–both in Assisi and in his own heart–was not an easy one. But look again at the picture.  Is there anywhere else you would rather be?

Pilgrimage to Assisi


Today Carolyn and I leave for Rome and then Assisi.  We will continue to study Italian, and I will be sharing some insights into the religious and political milieu of the 13th century with a lovely group of pilgrims.  My intention is simply to keep my mind as alert as possible, and my heart as open as possible.  I want to remember an insight of Dawna Markova: “What you love reveals its loveliness.”

St. Francis was clearly a remarkable human being.  Remarkable in his absolute commitment to live his beliefs, his wholehearted embrace of suffering humanity, and in his unstinting love of Nature.  He was a human being in that his path was not one of unremitting sweetness and light. His relationship with his father was turbulent, his experience in war was traumatic, he felt the burden of leadership as onerous, and finally a vast number of his followers could not be faithful to his vision.    Karen Armstrong says that the magnificent basilica that houses his body in Assisi was actually the final and perhaps greatest betrayal of his life.  Even the famous Peace Prayer attributed to him was not written until the 19th century by an anonymous author.

I plan to write a series of essays while in Italy to unpack these varying eddies in the the life of Francis, and to reflect on their relevance to life in the 21st century.  I am sure Francis would echo the sentiment expressed in “his” famous prayer:  May we all be instruments of Divine Peace.

a presto

Lost in the Mist Haiku

linked to carpe diem haiku kai

This is a picture of the main gate to Honen-in, a temple of the Pure Land Buddhist sect. It is found in the Northeast corner of Kyoto, just off the Path of Philosophy.  Its precincts are relatively small, but a precious, tranquil oasis.


pure land gateless gate

Nirvana on either side

hiding in the mist

First Market Haiku



The dramatic statue holding sway over the campo dei fiori (field of flowers) in Rome is that of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600). He was an Italian Dominican monk who fell afoul of the inquisition about 15 years before Galileo did. Bruno held that the stars were suns like our own, that there could be many habitable worlds, and that the universe was infinite with no one body at its center. He also questioned transubstantiation, Mary’s virginity, and the divinity of Jesus, which really got him into trouble. He was burned at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori in the year 1600. Today the plaza is a thriving market, and one of my favorite places (I took this photo about three years ago). The statue is still a matter of controversy, as some conservatives object to honoring a heretic in this way. He is, however, a hero to progressives.

Giordano Bruno

brooding over first market

tasting bitter fruit

linked to carpe diem haiku kai

On Stereotypes: Are you in there?

A few years go, Carolyn and I spent a special weekend at a small conference hosted by Ram Dass. We enjoyed his combination of Eastern Wisdom and his clear-eyed acceptance of his own human foibles. One memorable “take-away” was his insight that human beings tended to wrap themselves in their bodies, retreat to the mind, and trudge through the world with little presence. Many of us are too often not where we are or when we are. It can be a problem.

Ram Dass said that he liked to say to people, in effect, “Are you in there? I’m in here. Want to come out and play?” Once in a while this insight takes a hold of my boyish enthusiasm, and on this morning’s walk I opened to the game. It transformed the day from wonderful to magical.

As we walked along this beach,
I watched a German couple approach. They seemed to me to be hidden deep inside, and fearful of encounter. I saw that they had their shoes in their hands, so looking into their eyes, I asked “Is the water cold?” Whoosh! The doors flew open and their souls came rushing out to see and be seen. Before very long, they were regaling us with their recent trip to Grenada and the four hours they spent in the Alhambra. We parted with smiles and handshakes.

The morning’s gifts continued to unfold: a conversation in Spanish with a lovely young woman from Colombia; a woman from Finland who spends half the year here in Spain; two German women, retired economists, who will soon be studying energy healing in an Ashram in India; a Spanish woman with two remarkable children. As we stopped for coffee at a seaside cafe, I asked a man if he were enjoying his carrot cake, and again, all the lights came on. It turns out they were a delightful couple from Wales who were astounded that a philistine American would be a fan of Dylan Thomas.

This last point, is important, I think.  We Americans have earned the stereotype of being greedy to the point of selfishness, loud, lacking empathy, and being generally self-centered.  We, of course, are not alone in being stereotyped–or stereotyping.  I can easily ferret out many lingering prejudices lurking in the shadows of my own consciousness: stodgy Germans, drunken Irishmen, volatile Italians, snotty French, and damp, provincial Brits.  The beautiful thing is that when I actually meet people from these places, the stereotypes evaporate in the warmth of the human heart.  Even when the stereotypes seem to hold, they are quickly seen as incredibly superficial–my own projections, really–and the soulful depths of each unique individual emerge.

I also find that many people I meet are visibly bemused, and very surprised, to meet Americans who are quiet and gentle, interested in other cultures and languages, and doing their best to live respectful and loving lives.   So Carolyn and I have never visited the Eiffel tower, or the Empire State Building, or the Coliseum.  We certainly travel to enjoy nature’s lavish gifts, and the beauty that flows from human hands in art, architecture and–perhaps especially–food.  But the essence of the experience for us is the meeting of the human spirit.  I believe if we all could touch and be touched at the level of the heart, fearful stereotypes would indeed dissolve, and this would be a step toward easing the hostilities that are fed by those stereotypical abstractions.  “You have to be taught to hate,” sings a song in South Pacific.  So, too, we can learn to love.

Morning In Seville

Monday morning dawns with a promise of beauty and adventure. Carolyn and I traveled by the high speed train (AVE) yesterday from Madrid to Seville–328 miles–in just 2 and 1/2 hours. We are staying in an apartment in Triana, across the river from the main part of town. We love this area, since it is where the folks live, and is not too touristy.

Part of the joy of travel is the surprising and usually brief encounters with people, both local and international. Martin Buber suggests that real living is encounter, even at a distance if one has the ears and the heart to hear the call of the soul in another. Three times yesterday morning in Madrid I had Spanish people ask me directions, and twice I actually knew the answer. The third gentleman was most gracious when I explained I was an American, and did not know the street he was seeking. We had a lovely exchange, and parted shaking hands. These short but sweet human meetings warm my heart, and reinforce my belief in the positive energies of life. We hear the horrors of the world on the evening news (if we choose to listen), but every day offers the gift of grace and warmth that brings light to those dark forebodings.

This Ebola scare is a good example. None of our lives will have a happy ending–at least from one point of view. We might find some consolation in the belief in an afterlife or in reincarnation, but still, death has its sting. Plato, of all people, warns us not to live a life which is little more than “a rear guard action against death.” I find that inspiring. I don’t want to miss today’s blessings because I am worried about what awful thing might happen.

A student once remarked that this attitude could have me ending up with a bullet in my head. I answered that I would rather live ten more years without fear, and catch that bullet, than live 50 more years in craven fear. So many people worry about life after death. I think it is far more important to give attention to life before death. Whatever happens afterwards will take care of itself.

So we are off for a day in Seville. What will we see? What fabulous tapas will we discover? Who will cross our paths? And if things should “go wrong,” then the adventure begins.

I’ll end by sharing a picture I took last night from our balcony of the Seville Cathedral–the third largest in the world:

Joaquin Sorolla

Yesterday, Carolyn and I visited the wonderful museum of Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923). He was the most celebrated Spanish painter of his day. You can read about his life and career on Wikipedia, so I will simply share some subjective impressions of our visit.

The painting at the top of this post, of the boys at the beach of Valencia, shows Sorolla’s love of people, and his ability to express the magic of color and of life itself. A commentary on the walls of one of the rooms underscores Sorolla’s “ability to capture a fleeting impression, a momentary reflection, of vital and continuous movement.” This seems to me to be an exact description of haiku poetry, and it brings home again the understanding that all the arts–verbal, plastic, dance, and music–have this in common: that they capture the pathos and the beauty of the universal by an exquisite depiction of particular detail.

Here is another example of his love of people and the swirling colors of water:

imageI apologize for the poor quality of the photo, but this painting was high on a wall.  Still, you can clearly see the amazing movement of the water as the girls wade hand in hand.

Many of his paintings are depictions of women at once beautiful and strong:


He once said that the weariness and patience of the women who fished translated directly into the tenderness and care of motherhood.

Sorolla was also most sympathetic to the hardship and contributions of common laborers, as exemplified by this famous painting hanging in the Prado:

imageIt is entitled Y aun dicen que el pescado es caro: And they still say that fish is expensive.  The young man is clearly dying, hurt in the line of work, demonstrating just how expensive fish really are.  I was particularly struck by the compassion on the faces of the men attending the young man.

Finally, the museum is actually the home in Madrid that Sorolla shared with his beloved wife Clotilde and their three children.  Even if there were no paintings, the house itself is an oasis of tranquility.  Here is Carolyn resting in the garden:


Some of Sorolla’s most impressive work can be seen today in New York City, at the Hispanic Society of America’s building in Manhattan.  There are 14 magnificent murals of the various provinces of Spain on permanent display.   His home here in Madrid, however, is a gem well worth visiting.


Traveling with Carolyn


Starting Monday, October 20, 2014, Carolyn and I will be spending two months in Spain, and in the Spring of 2015, two months in Italy. We hope to share the sensuality of these lovely countries, and the joy of the human connections we make along the way..

Our love of travel was nurtured by our careers as university professors, since we were able to attend many international conferences. The years we spent based in Japan also allowed easy access to the Orient. Over the years we have visited 25 countries, and we continue to dream of distant horizons.

We find travel intensified living. New colors, sounds, smells, quality of light, language, and customs are continually fascinating. We therefore travel primarily to drink in the rich textures of our planet, and to interact with the people who inhabit it. Of course, that doesn’t rule out enjoying the unique tastes of each country, and we spend a good amount of time wandering the streets, reading menus, and chatting with the folks who cross our path.

We also feel that language is the key to people’s hearts, so we do our best to learn at least a few words of our host country’s language. We have a good working knowledge of Spanish, Japanese, French, and Italian, and continue to spend part of each trip studying at language schools. This is a great way to travel, since it allows us to practice the skills of communicating, and also to feel a part of the place beyond simple tourism. It is amazing how the faces of people soften when we say “Somos estudiantes de la escula de idiomas aquí  (We are students in the language school here.)”

During the next few weeks, I will be posting from Madrid, Sevilla, and Nerja, a small coastal town in Andalusia.  I hope to share some of the flavor of those places and the people who live in them.

Hasta pronto…



Erleichda: Lighten Up!

Erleichda: Tom Robbins suggests, tongue in cheek, that this was the last word of Albert Einstein.  Robbins defines it this way: “The word was a transitive verb, an exclamation, a command, of which an exact English translation is impossible. The closest equivalent probably would be the phrase “Lighten up!”

Ben Zander calls his variation of this command  “Rule Number 6: Don’t take yourself so darned seriously.”  I began to learn this lesson on a dark, lonely night in 1978.  Here’s how it went:

In the mythology of my early family, I was the klutz.  I was identified as the bookish one, and my Dad and brother did their best to keep me from making a mess of things if I tried to hammer a nail or use a screwdriver.  It is amazing how often we buy into familial self-definition.  Becoming a pilot in my late thirties helped to ameliorate my self-distancing from things mechanical, but the journey to that point was long, and fraught with some funny stops along the way.

Back in 1978, I had agreed to help a friend by ferrying his small Datsun Honey Bee from Phoenix, Arizona to Burlington, Vermont. It was a journey of 2600 miles, and I loved to drive.  The first day went without a hitch. The next day, however, as I left Albuquerque, New Mexico, the accelerator became sluggish.   Even floored, I could only coax the car to do 50 mph.  It was going to be a long trip.

The third night found me in rural Arkansas, about 150 miles West of Memphis.  It was a pitch black night on an empty desolate stretch of road.  Suddenly, the accelerator had had enough, and quit altogether.  With what little momentum I had left, I managed to coast up an exit ramp, and come to a stop under what seemed to be the only street lamp within 50 miles.

A quick inspection showed me that the accelerator linkage had separated.  I was proud that I could even see the problem, and then with seemingly supernatural inspiration, I rummaged around in my suitcase, found a coat hanger, and twisted it straight.  My confidence building by the second, I used the hanger to join the two loose parts of the linkage together, and sure enough, the car roared into life.  “Roar” was the appropriate word, because now the only control I had was full throttle, and to slow down or stop, I had to depress the clutch. This caused the car to scream in protest.  Now instead of poking along at 50, I went zooming across the bridge into Memphis at 90 miles an hour.  I turned into the first motel I could find, and stopped in front of the office with such a din that the clerk at the desk went as pale as a ghost.  I explained my predicament.  “Leave the car where it is,” she said, “and take it to the Datsun dealer around the corner in the morning.”

At 8 am the next day, I attracted strange looks as my laboring engine heralded my arrival at the dealership.  I drove right into a bay, and gratefully turned off the engine.  A tall older mechanic from the hills of Tennessee ambled over to the car and raised the hood.  I stood by feeling ten feet tall, as I anticipated fulfilling a lifelong dream of being seen as mechanically competent.  Finally, I was about to come into my own.

The old fellow peered intently into the engine for a moment, and straightened up.  “Hell,” he said.  “It ain’t hard to see what’s wrong.  Some asshole has gone and wired your engine!”

Erleichda, indeed.


City Mouse or Country Mouse?


Carolyn and I live in a small town in Indiana. It often feels like a plate of white beans: bland and unexciting. This weekend, however, finds us in the New York City area, and Indiana is beginning to have a certain attraction.

I love Manhattan, with the architecture, vibrant energy, and good restaurants. Wandering through Central Park up to the museum district is one of our life’s great joys. But driving around on the outskirts of the City is to be caught up in a frenetic maelstrom. People seem frantic to get to where they are going, and there is a general feeling of discourtesy and selfishness. Fear, aggression and scarcity seem to be the values that shape the highway environment. I could well be wrong about all this, but it does seem sad to me that people live with such fearful, self-centered urgency.

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