Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Place Where I'm From

One of the finest meals we had on our trip to Italy took place in a ordinary-looking house at a t-intersection in Reggia-Emillia, parmesan cheese country. We had asked our host for a suggestion for a restaurant. He warned us the proprietor spoke no English – that he was nervous of us even because we were English. The place was ablaze with florescent light in the dark early spring night. The proprietor shyly he led us to a table. The waitress appeared and a torrent of what we assumed to be daily specials poured forth from her mouth. We nodded – understanding one word in three – and took the menus to decipher them. She came back, apologizing, trying again in the simplest broken English. Between her English and our Italian, we ordered the most delicious home-made ravioli, steak on beds of radicchio and arugula, and an alcohol-soaked pudding. Mama was the cook – and she had found her vocation. We watched the proprietor and waitress listen intently to each guest, sit down to talk while a man with intellectual disabilities searched his wallet to pay, maintain grace and dignity while delivering plate after plate of delicious food. At the end of our meal, we managed to get the shy owner to talk to us. It turned out he had been to Canada, briefly to Niagara Falls and then to the St. Lawrence to see whales.

I’ve thought a lot about this man since. It is likely he is setting tables today while his wife cooks meals. They probably cooked yesterday and they likely will again tomorrow. Mama’s recipes could be from the ‘Net, but I bet they were handed down from her nonna, her grandmother. For us, this was a holiday, but especially in this little trattoria, this was also someone’s daily life.

My favourite part of the play Our Town is the scene when Emily comes back to earth for one day after she has died. No one can see her but she sees all the normal things of life going on around her and she cries out, “ I can’t look at everything hard enough. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another ” As she leaves, she says: “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you ” Then she asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”

It is easy to find holidays exotic and charming. It’s not hard to see regular life as mundane and ordinary. I wonder about the man in the restaurant. If he longed too much for Niagara Falls, if he decided to change his restaurant to serve Thai food, if he decided that regular life was too dull - what would be lost?

At the end of the wonderful movie Stranger than Fiction, the narrator says,

“As Harold took a bite of Bavarian sugar cookie, he finally felt as if everything was going to be ok. Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies. And, fortunately, when there aren't any cookies, we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind and loving gesture, or subtle encouragement, or a loving embrace, or an offer of comfort, not to mention hospital gurneys and nose plugs, an uneaten Danish, soft-spoken secrets, and Fender Stratocasters, and maybe the occasional piece of fiction. And we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorize our days, are effective for a much larger and nobler cause. They are here to save our lives. I know the idea seems strange, but I also know that it just so happens to be true.”

You don’t need to know the movie to understand what she is saying. Like her, I believe God uses the simple, ordinary things of life to teach and rescue us. I believe God comes to be with us in our everyday life, as well as in significant moments of pain and joy. I believe the best thing I can do is to “Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. “ (Romans 12:1, The Message)

I need to learn to have eyes like Emily does in the play – before I’m dead, if possible. Sure, traveling to new places and discovering new restaurants and new vistas is lovely, but my task is the same as the man in the restaurant: to set the table that is before me, to serve those who come into my corner of the world, to travel occasionally but to live, rooted, in the place where I’m from.

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