31 August 2006

What community is not.

My friend Stephanie kindly asked me to be guest blogger on her site, Oh Me of Little Faith.

Below is the article I posted. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

What Community Is Not.

For the majority of my teen, college and post-college years, I walked through my “Christian hedonism” life believing I had true community. Those years were some of the most enjoyable, memorable moments that I will always treasure dearly. My only regret is not having gone to the depths with those who were close in my life, while I had the chance.

Nothing bad really happened to me back then. I had a loyal group of friends, and the house where my roomie and I lived was the headquarters for all kinds of parties, from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day, to movie nights galore. My greatest concern was whether I’d have the job of my dreams or get to live in a beach house one day with a back porch, an art room, and wind chimes. And while those things are not wrong in and of themselves, I let them dictate what I understood about God and the life He had given me…and that has only robbed me - and others - of some of the blessings of this journey.

I had girlfriends (and unfortunately, a few guys) in my life who knew some of the emotions that had curled up in a sleeping bag and camped out in the basement of Christine. I could sit on the bed for hours with my best friend, sharing hopes and hurts and fears. Yes, I was experiencing community in its barest, most stripped-down form. But I had not even begun to experience it in its most lasting authenticity, mainly because I was afraid to look ugly. I was afraid to be real.

I told my friends only what I wanted them to know, and I was OK with that. I thought it was just fine for only God to know who Christine truly was. I wanted to be His vessel, but only if it meant I could still be comfy.

I could do Beth Moore Bible studies with the best of ‘em. But when it was my turn to share prayer requests, I’d always say something surfacy like, “well…work has been really tough” or “my cousins are traveling this weekend, so keep them in your prayers” or (if I was really desperate) “my dog is sick.” Not that those things weren’t important to my friends or to God…but it was a problem when, secretly, I knew I was in a unhealthy relationship that was eating me alive, and I repeatedly said nothing. Why was I holding back? Did I even know there was more to community than this?

When someone gave me unsolicited advice, I threw my hands up in defense. Wai, wai, wait. No one tells me what to do. People need me. I’m the perfect one, remember? Whenever someone needs help, I’m your girl.

But truthfully, I didn’t always want to help. Sometimes I did it because it was easier to put the focus on someone else’s needs and remain the saint. It was so much easier exposing someone else than exposing myself.

As often occurs, it took my entire world being rocked for me to realize that I was not going to experience true community as long as I was always “OK”…always “fine.”

I’ll never forget a conversation I had one night with the man who would eventually become my husband. For the first time in my life, someone said to me, “Christine, I don’t even want you to be perfect. You couldn’t be perfect if you tried. And that is the Christine I want.” I still didn’t believe him at first, but then he shared the way his life had been shattered and how he had found the authentic Christian life in the midst of it. I smiled and nodded, yet I had no idea what he was talking about at the time. I’m sure he knew that, but he still didn’t run away from me.

He began to journey with me, and discovering community for me became like that classic scene from Lady and The Tramp. I had the very tip of the spaghetti in my mouth, and as I slowly began chewing, the noodle kept going…and going…and going. Today, I’m probably one noodle into the entire bowl. I’m not where I need to be, but thank God I’m not where I was.

So how would I define community? I’m still only on the first noodle, remember? I have a long way to go. But having tasted both sides, I do have some pretty strong convictions from my own journey on what community is not.

Community is not a group of faceless strangers in the same building on a Sunday morning.
Community is not playing it safe.
Community is not living for “the next big thing.”
Community is not afraid of silence, or tears, or anger, or pain.
Community is not exposing oneself without first establishing trust.
Community is not a one-way street.
Community is not a place where someone does not feel loved.
Community is not a place where complacency or earthly perfection are celebrated.
Community is not impatient while God works.
Community is not a place where the work is ever “done.”
Community is not afraid to say “no” when a “no” is needed.
Community is not ungrateful.
Community is not absent of struggle.
Community is not in the business of letting its members continue struggling without fighting for their freedom.

Community is not an option…it is the model Christ set for us.

Real community is a threat to those who seek to hinder Christ. The Apostle Paul knew it – he spent a lot of his life trying to tear it down.

“In light of all this, here's what I want you to do. While I'm locked up here, a prisoner for the Master, I want you to get out there and walk—better yet, run!—on the road God called you to travel. I don't want any of you sitting around on your hands. I don't want anyone strolling off, down some path that goes nowhere. And mark that you do this with humility and discipline—not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences.

You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly. You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness.

But that doesn't mean you should all look and speak and act the same. Out of the generosity of Christ, each of us is given his own gift…He handed out gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher to train Christ's followers in skilled servant work, working within Christ's body, the church, until we're all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God's Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.”

I’m excited to share that several of my treasured friendships from the past have been brought to a place of raw, authentic community today. What a gift. It is definitely more difficult sharing my ugliness with people who have known me in the past than with people I’ve met in this new stage of life, because I had to confess that I had been hiding for a long time. I’ve also found that I’m a whole lot more selfish, rude, moody, and flighty than I ever knew possible. While my community (and my gracious husband) loves me despite my failings, they do not let me remain that way…

“No prolonged infancies among us, please. We'll not tolerate babes in the woods, small children who are an easy mark for impostors. God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.”

All Scripture from Ephesians 4, The Message

17 August 2006

I'm in love with Vera.

Not Vera Bradley, and not Vera Wang. I've discovered a new Vera today who has completely and unexpectedly inspired me.

Have you ever seen a work of art that made your heart jump? I stumbled across this artist while surfing online for vintage fabric. One page led to another...and another...and another...and before I knew it I was mesmerized. Unique, vibrant, colorful, vintage-y patterns gracing kitchen towels…tablecloths…tea cups…pillowcases…oh, they were gorgeous. Even scarves and dresses. And they were each identified by her scribbled four-lettered name and signature ladybug logo. Who was this woman? Why didn’t I know about her? Apparently I am not the only one, because there are zero bids on the majority of her products on eBay, and most items are under $10!

Bold color inspires me. It's one of the things I loved so much about India. Especially in flowers...glowing red poppies...hydrangeas in every imaginable shade of pink, purple, green, and blue...honey-colored daffodils. I love expressing myself by decorating with color and using neutral tones accented with bright bursts of red, yellow, purple, and green. I was even thrilled when we found out our apartment came with red carpet! I think it lends character.

So when I discovered the world of Vera Neumann online today, I was captivated. Thanks to Google, I was able to quickly learn more about this talented woman and what provided her such inspiration. She started her textile business from her kitchen table in New York City following World War II. Apparently at that time, there was not much use of color in the world of linens and tableware, and her creations brought vibrance to women's humdrum post-war lives. She started out with linen place mats, and it quickly grew into an empire. Country Living Magazine said, "To create her distinctive designs, Neumann found inspiration all around her. Flowers were a favorite theme, and her studio in the Hudson River Valley home she and her husband built in the 1950s overlooked a garden filled with blooms. Traveling was another passion. Windmills on the Spanish island of Ibiza, mosaic-tile sidewalks in Rio de Janeiro, modern sculpture in Finland and calligraphy in China all sparked the designer's imagination."

I’m in love, I tell you. My eye doesn't see these as simply tablecloths or napkins - I see them as entirely unique works of art. Here are some of my favorite Vera designs I’ve seen online today...

For some reason though, this one below is my favorite. Perhaps because of its simplicity...

Though Vera Neumann passed away in 1993 at age 83, she is now my muse! I think she has left a beautiful legacy. My wheels are already turning, trying to figure out how I can start a personal collection from these auctions and also use them as one-of-a-kind gifts for friends. I simply can't imagine why anyone would want to get rid of such rare creations. I'll be joining Vera in the wild blue yonder before they leave my hands!

15 August 2006

Where the streets are paved with gold...

My grandfather left his home of Paceco in the area of Trapani, Sicily in 1920 because he heard that in America, the streets were paved with gold. Not only is it a bit surreal seeing his name on the original ship manifest from the "F. Palasciano" which carried him to his home in the New World, but it’s almost impossible for me to imagine leaving such a gloriously beautiful place as Sicily for the hustling-bustling streets of New York City. I guess I can thank Grandpa Stefano Piccione for being hopeful and naïve enough to make the journey.

As I ponder my heritage and admire this vibrant photo of a port in Trapani, my heart jumps. Look at that water. I can almost hear it lapping against the boats and smell the espresso brewing at a nearby waterfront café. I stare at it again and again and can't help but think...could there be a tangible reason I yearn for "la dolce vita"? A pre-disposition to living in a small waterside town where the sun beats strongly year-round, the square (or piazza!) is the town gathering place, and the passeggiata is the "big event" of the evening? Maybe the reason I treasure experiences and places like these is that they run in my blood...literally.

My grandfather passed away when I was 2, so I never had the chance to sit with him over a cup of strong coffee and ask him if he ever missed his Italian home. Unlike his granddaughter, this gruff family man whose hands only knew hard labor would not have pined away for the life that he left behind...at least not outwardly. I do know that he became a brick-layer, married an Italian-American New Yorker named Maria, and they settled in tiny Madison, NJ, "The Rose City," where I grew up and where my parents still happily reside. I also know my grandfather fiercely loved his children: my aunts Lucille and Paula, and my dad Frankie. I hear Grandpa could eat an entire pound of pasta by himself in one sitting, ate 4 sandwiches for lunch, made his own red wine, loved playing Pinocle, and smoked 10 packs of cigarettes a day (yes, that's 200 cigarettes...), yet he left this world with perfectly healthy lungs.

There are no streets paved with gold in Madison, but it was a lovely place to grow up. I did not always feel that way. As a child, I ungratefully resented the fact that I was a dark-haired Italian-American. I had weight issues stemming from our carb-loving family genetics. I was literally from the "other side of the tracks." My family was blue-collar. Unlike several of my close friends, we didn’t have sitting rooms or a butler’s pantry. We spent summer nights eating hotdogs at the picnic table in the backyard. My dad always had grit under his nails. Everyone on my street had a last name that ended in a vowel.

This is the tiny house where I grew up in the immigrant part of town. Across the street are three sprawling baseball fields, and to this day, the old Italian neighborhood men never miss a chance to hike up their britches and play some Bocce ball on a Sunday afternoon! And you know, there is something respectful about the fact that these men are still the working class people, the day-laborers of the town. They're the men who build the playgrounds and keep the town parks manicured. They provide the fresh meats and produce. They keep the school cafeteria floors polished. They coach our teams. I definitely took it for granted while I was there, and I regret that now. So what if I didn't grow up like the kids on "the hill"? There seems to be a beautiful simplicity about the way we lived.

Somewhere between childhood and leaving for college, I became a young lady, and with that came an adoration of the place I called home for the first 17 years of my life...and the homeland where my family history began. Having been to Italy, I understand now where this simplicity of life was birthed. A little over 3 years ago, I stepped foot in Milan with my mother and knew that, in a way, I was "home." This is a bit hard to put into words, but I finally felt like there was part of Who Christine Is that was explained once I had been to Italy. Not explained through words, but through experiences.

Just so I never forget, and since this blog is supposed to be about the "simple life," I thought I'd share a few of my favorite memories of Italy. May you enjoy them too.

Piazza San Marco in Venice.
One of my all-time favorite memories. Accordions playing in the background….the glorious St. Mark's Basilica against the bluest dusk sky as the sun is setting. At the close of the day in magical Venezia, a few couples start dancing in the middle of the square where the pigeons play.

Corniglia in the Cinque Terre.
We left our car at the entrance of this tiny medieval town and were immediately transported to another time. The golden Ligurian Sea glowed in the distance, and the only sounds were church bells and birds chirping. As we strolled through this little town at dusk, villagers resting peacefully on wooden benches called out a friendly, "Buona Sera!" At the edge of the town were rows and rows of olive groves and lemon trees. The constant smell of honeysuckle. No tourists. Time stood still. My mom and I stepped through narrow alleyways, stopping outside one family’s house to savor the sounds of Italian conversation and the clank of utensils on their pottery plates. At the inn/restaurant in his photo, we dined on a patio overlooking the ocean and received a personal Italian lesson by the owner, who taught me how to say, "I love my mama!"

Rosa & Annarella. On the journey from Sorrento to Rome, we were supposed to change trains at the tiny station in Casserta, but there were no more trains to Rome that night. Suddenly frightened and abandoned at midnight with our colossal luggage bags and my mom with her bright blond ponytail, we might as well have been wearing signs that said, "American Tourists...please take us for all we're worth." Then these two sweet Italian angels named Rosa and Annarella befriended us. Since I only knew a few Italian words, I spoke French to them, and they understood! They led us safely to a nearby hotel where we stayed for the night. Here we are...the Italian sisters :).

Sorrento's Treasure. Sorrento is a small city on the bay of Napoli and from its shores, you can clearly see Mt. Vesuvius. On the shores of Sorrento, I found a treasure. Thousands and thousands of clay tiles in every color imaginable, smoothed by the ocean and resting peacefully in the pebbled sand. Disguarded pieces of tile flooring from coastal homes, or perhaps shards of pottery from urns that once graced flowered patios, these were literal fragments of someone's memories. I spent about an hour there and left with my pockets full. Today, some of them are displayed in a glass jar in my bathroom, and the rest are stowed safely away, waiting to be used for the perfect craft project...perhaps a mosaic table, mirror, or countertop. I will know when the time is right to use them.

* * *
This September, a Beginner's Italian class is being offered at the Italian Club of Dallas. I'm strongly considering finally learning the language of my grandfather Stefano, my grandmother Maria, and so many relatives before them. It's my only way to feel close to them now and to understand more deeply the simple life they lived...and the life I strive to live.