Libra is Latin for scale or balance and in ancient Rome became a unit of weight (around 12 ounces), the forerunner of the pound. As the 7th sign in the Zodiac, Libra represents someone born between September 23rd and October 22nd, who may harbor a fixation on balance and harmony. A true Libra may be obsessed with symmetry and strives to create equilibrium in all areas of life.
Equity is also reflected in the familiar symbol for fairness—the blindfolded goddess, Lady Justice, holding the scales of equality. She symbolizes the judicial system’s obligation to one and all, blind to prejudice and bias. Her only focus is balance and equilibrium, conjuring a notion of competing or opposite forces—equally strong. Balance can also refer to emotional stability or calmness, as in, “It took me awhile to regain my equilibrium.” The idea of balance is a practical and symbolic aspect of everyday life.
We were born under the signs of Sagittarius, the archer and Taurus, the bull. Yet we’re curiously drawn to the fundamental value of “balance.” For years, we had a framed picture on the bookshelf of the sketch by artist/sculptor Alexander Calder called “Tightrope Artist,” which served as a playful reminder for the importance of maintaining balance in all that we do. That doesn’t mean for a second that we’ve been able to achieve this illusive quality, but we keep trying.
In a stroke of genius in 1931, Calder broke through the established notion that sculpture was solid, static and stationary by reimagining it as light, delicate and dynamic. Voila! Suddenly the “mobile” was born—many smaller forms leveraged against larger ones. Not only was his sculptural work balanced, but usually swayed in subtle motion, ready for bolder action.
Calder’s reinterpretation brought the element of poise into play. Most of us probably understand that balance is essential in our lives, but also feel that balance alone isn’t quite enough. In addition to stability, we find ourselves striving for an even more anticipatory stance—dynamic, poised for action. Like a Calder mobile, our balance is free-floating, with slight movement nearly undetected—awaiting action. With Calder’s shift from “stabile” to “mobile,” stationary balance became the prerequisite for the shift to movement, potential change and graceful possibility.
Years later, we found an old scale in an antique shop. It hung over the stairway in our former home and now resides in the living room, suspended above the sofa as a hovering reminder of equilibrium, justice and fairness. We like the simplicity of it—rustic and ordinary. It seems perfectly straightforward, with no delicate calibration needed. It’s just a basic everyday scale, suspended on twine and easily gaged at a glance—in balance or out. Simple. The slight turning with the breeze, catches our eye to nudge sweet memories of scouring salvage yards for treasures, as well as being a symbol of that never-ending pursuit of balance. It also serves as a nod to Calder’s mobiles.
We’ve decided to keep the Calder sketch and the rustic antique scale as reminders of the basic need for balance and equilibrium in our lives. Yet, we continue to be fascinated with the notion of being poised for action. Alert and at the ready, we wait and watch with quiet anticipation, imagining our very lives to be similar to a dynamic Calder construction. Will there be a dramatic sweeping movement or just silent subtle shifts, drifting slowly in the breeze of inspiration? We’re eager with anticipation. After all, isn’t Life a series of balancing acts, of repeated efforts to regain equilibrium? Let’s examine the possibilities. Let’s weigh the options.
Ever heard that statement? Someone decides that he/she has reached some sort of limit, set a boundary, stopped an affront. Before that moment, supposedly all options were on the table. When lines are blurred, sometimes even an individual can’t be clearly defined. So setting boundaries is a healthy practice, right?
So then, what’s the difference between a boundary and a wall?
That simple question triggered an unexpected hours-long conversation with us. We started talking about the importance of setting appropriate “boundaries,” defining individuality, privacy and important limits. We talked about how creating clear “edges” can improve relationships. These kinds of boundaries tend to be created in words, body language, expressions, personality and social constructs. The rub is that the very idea of clear boundaries begs the question of staying “open” to interpretation, remaining flexible. Black and white may be too much contrast. In other words, at what point does a healthy boundary actually morph and solidify into an impenetrable wall? Often a clarifying boundary can become an unintended barrier—harsh and unforgiving, resulting in a loss of communication and community.
Walls are physical structures, that allow passage by permission only. Our homes are constructed of physical walls, defining and protecting our lives inside. They make us feel safe and secure.
Robert Frost says in his famous poem, Mending Wall, that “Good fences make good neighbors . . .” But this line (often quoted out of context to suggest the value of division) is actually lamenting a lack of connection and intimacy. The opening line of the poem is “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it . . .” So Frost is actually saying that a wall is unnatural, that Nature will eventually erode the man-made structure and break it down. He imagines asking his neighbor, “Why do fences make good neighbors?“ Before constructing a wall, maybe, Frost imagines a more pertinent question that he might ask of himself, “What I was walling in or walling out?“
Maybe if we develop strong personal definitions, we actually don’t need physical walls. It’s only when someone oversteps a personal value, that we respond by erecting something stronger, more visible, obvious. We might see and hear the symbolic walls being constructed, in a door slamming shut or someone retreating to another room of the house. If we respect an individual’s personal edges, perhaps walls would be totally without merit, un-needed. Maybe walls could be relegated to just shelter and safety, rather than barrier status.
Before Europe became the European Union, travel between countries was more arduous. Border crossings were comprised of agents checking documents to control who was let in or kept out. Then, suddenly, borders were open, especially in the Schengen Area, the world’s largest visa-free zone, made up of 26 countries. The agreement created seamless movement between member nations for residents and visitors alike. Roads had always continued between neighboring countries, but after the agreement, the arm and check-point that “sealed” the country in, was simply removed (or abandoned). There may have been a few geographical edges of countries, but for the most part, countries flowed from one to another. Nature didn’t stop at the outline of France to become Italy. (Although the famed French baguette seems to have been denied entry into any neighboring country.)
So, perhaps well-defined personal edges and open borders are really what makes the world a better place—something to talk about together.
The sound a hammer makes when it strikes a steel chisel is unique—it’s a dull, metallic, muffled clang as the chisel bites deeper into stone or mortar. As I rounded the corner of the country studio, I heard the familiar sound, then caught sight of the hammer swinging high and squarely driving the chisel a fraction of an inch deeper. […]
China isn’t the only country that built walls. Italy certainly crafted a few of their own over the centuries. However, there is one very special wall around the old center of Lucca in Tuscany, that might even win first place if we held a “cool walls” or a “most excellent” competition. They were really serious back then about “drawing the line” […]
This song was jotted down at the dining room table in our old Victorian house on Main Street in 1978. Cheryl had taken our one-year-old Aaron to Florida to visit her folks. Em was so self-focused, he preferred to stay behind rather than go with the family. He wanted undisturbed time to work on restoring/remodeling […]
Credits Schengen and Featured image courtesy of the internet commons. Drawing by M.C. Escher All other photos/drawings/music by authors, or purchased from Canva
Every morning begins with an espresso, a cappuccino, or a caffè macchiato (an espresso, stained with milk). A fresh pasta, pastry, typically accompanies the coffee. Just those two simple ingredients constitute collazione, breakfast. There are coffee bars in almost every town, even tiny burgs where there are few, if any other shops. We’ve enjoyed the simple ambience of many and how they must compete for the loyalty of locals. Now that the Tokyo olympic games are over, we thought it would be fun to conduct our own little competition for the best Tuscan coffee bar this season!
The criteria for judging this play-off has been established as follows:
(1) best espresso—duhh?
(2) friendliest barrista/staff
(3) yummiest pastries—whether made in the back room kitchen or brought in daily from a nearby pasticceria, pastry bakery
(4) best dog treats (Our ever-present doxy, Sara insisted.)
And since we’re reasonably sure that we’ve visited just about every bar in Tuscany at least once for the past two decades, we consider ourselves “expat-experts” of sorts.
Three outstanding bars made it to the last round of the competition after extensive discussion and debate. The finalists are:
Bar Cesare in Florence, definitely excels with its in-house pasticceria. Their sfoglia con ricotta, crispy-layered pastry with sweetened cheese, are so delicious that it jostles memories of the famous cartoon dog who floated mid-air with delight when he was given a dog treat. But alas, Bar Cesare offers absolutely NO dog treats. Sara gave it a “dew claw down” (the doggie version of a thumbs down). In fact, the owners, staff and patrons pay very little attention to Sara. Too bad guys!
Cafe Lorenzo, (which we have written about before) is located in Pian di Mugnone. Great ambience, yummy pastries (made fresh every day on site) and macchiati—so good that we had to restrain ourselves from excessive savoring, to accommodate the rapid 2-sip custom. However, despite their strong competitive scoring, their dog treats are always scraps of cornetti (croissants). So, due to that avoidable, yet critical omission of actual heart-healthy dog treats, we moved on. Sorry Lorenzo!
Cafe Plineo, located in the river-town of Sieci, proved to be the toughest of all competitors. Their coffee is excellent; the owners are delightful; they have a pastry called an intreccio—a cinnamon braided pastry with walnuts (with an outlandish premium 10 ₵ surcharge); and they ALWAYS, ALWAYS make-over Sara and give her a wholesome dog treat just for being cute. Needless to say, Plineo won the competition “paws-down” with the warmed-up intreccio and hearty treats for sweet Sara. According to Sara, they won by a nose—which, for a dachshund is a significant point margin.
Congratulations to Walter (say Vall-tear) and Simone (Mario, unfortunately wasn’t there for the closing ceremony). We appreciate all that you guys do each day to make our Italian bar-hopping experience more delicious and enjoyable—also, for the heartfelt hospitality you extend to dear Sara, our poochy companion. She appreciates your attention to the moon and back.
So, Dear Readers, if you ever find yourself near the small town of Sieci, along the Arno river, you must stop at Plineo for a taste of an incredible intreccio and where you can get a dog treat to go!
Thus ends the annual “Best Italian Bar” competition for 2021 (special pandemic edition).
Ciao, ciao, ciao! Cheryl, Em and Sara
You might also enjoy another doggy/bar story complete with music called “Isabella“—written in 2013 about our other previous Italian Doxy companion.
NO! We just can’t find that darn tombino. In Italy, of course, language results in many quizical and/or dumbfounded glances. In this instance the word tombino verrrrry loosely translates to mean, a large underground junction box. It is the heartbeat of many systems that feed into a country dwelling like ours. Running underground for about 120 meters (roughly 400 feet) are electrical cables, telephone lines and water systems. The tombino is a heavy concrete lidded box. In our Tuscan hideaway, stealthily secluded underground are many of these cement cubes about 5 feet on all sides. Typically unseen and NOT generally a topic of conversation. However, in these post-pandemic times, it has earned the distinction of being one of the most important talking points in our little corner of the world. Once found, you could probably hide in one, but we wouldn’t recommend it. But, WHERE, oh where, is my tombino? That’s the million-euro-question. Typically they’re fairly easy to locate, but unfortunately, ours has been covered over by years of crunched and compacted gravel mixed with gritty dirt. You get the picture?
It seems that our utilities have been interrupted by a tiny little country mouse who has nibbled through the yummy gray sheathing on the power cable to create a hole for water to seep in. Once the cable gets wet, you’re only months away from full-on corrosion. One day we’re feeling the “power”and the next day our “current” strength is completely gone. Living Without Power is of course, annoying, unacceptable, and even dangerous. The only way to remedy the situation is to locate the exact position of the “nibbled-through nuisance wire”—good luck with that! We had no choice but to locate all 7 of the buried tombini under the driveway as the first step in our problem-solving process. The first six, okay. Number seven, no way. What a challenge—trying to find a “nibble in a dirt-pack.”
Now, electricity certainly is a utility that we have come to enjoy on a daily basis. With the flip of a switch, we have light. The familiar click of a gas stove reminds us that it uses an electric ignition. But more than a mere creature comfort, it’s essential for surviving frigid winters in Tuscany. Without power, there’s NO heat. Without heat, cast iron radiators freeze. When they freeze, they burst. And they are NOT tidy bursters. They spray and spit rusty water as far as their cracks will allow. The force exerted from them mimics little explosions. It’s certainly not a pretty sight, and hopefully you’ll never have to witness or clean up such a disgusting mess.
During the pandemic, our neighbor informed us that we had suffered a loss of power in the winter. Yikes! We immediately flashed a joint memory of bursting radiators. Since it was too cold and nearly impossible to repair the electrical lines mid-winter, we borrowed electricity from a neighboring building. Using a very LONG extension cord (as a temporary measure), we kept the radiators happy enough that they didn’t crack-up under the stress. So when warmer weather arrived, we kicked into high gear to find a quasi-permanent solution for the electricity issue. Hence, we found ourselves in a desperate search for that seventh elusive tombino, which was the key to our success.
Alongside two trusty electricians, we energetically swung picks at the hardened earth and scraped the loosened dirt with our shoes and shovels to clear the debris. After multiple attempts and without success, we shifted again and again, to a different digging location, every time someone shouted “Let’s dig here!” The driveway started to look like giant gophers had taken up residence, randomly having popped up, leaving gaping holes and massive mounds of gravel. Our day ended on a note of dismay and discouragement.
But persistence persisted. Later that evening, our neighbor sent a text, “WOW, I found it.” No, he hadn’t been out digging in the dark, but he had discovered an equally valuable treasure—a single photograph of the house during construction. Some 20 years before, in the foreground, just barely within the frame was an old cement-covered Tuscan wheelbarrow balanced across a hole in the ground—a square hole. Safety first! There, beside that rusty-wheeled implement was a chunk of concrete shaped like—yes, a square lid. In the silence of the night, our sleuthy neighbor dug through hundreds of photos to find perhaps the only picture ever taken of thatlonely tombino during construction.
As with any Italian problem, endless loud talking and arm-waving is required, along with a dash of clever insight. But the noise, persistence and cunning almost always pay off. Fortunately, our neighbor snapped pics of the more mundane phases of construction—capturing momentary glimpses of life “uncovered.” We’re not finished with the repairs yet, but we currently have direction. Having a plan and renewed hope is certainly em-POWER-ing!
Related Story and Music
You might check out another story called “Living Without Power” that we wrote and recorded back in 2009 amid a devastating hurricane. Following is the music if you want a quick listen.
You’ve probably heard of the dog breed called the Blue Heeler. Well, our experience tells us that most dogs are amazing healers of a different kind.
Anyone who has ever had a dog can probably attest to the fact that canines, as well as other different pets, seem to have a sixth sense. It’s a multifaceted and magical capability that goes beyond empathy, love and loyalty to include powerful “healing.” Yes, that’s a big statement, but it’s true—dogs are “Mystical Doctors” rather than “medical doctors.”
For example, our little 9-pound doxy is a profound Healer. We’ve had many dogs over the years, each with a unique personality and special talents, but none have been quite like our little Sara. She seems to be hard-wired to heal.
If one of us is having a sad or down moment, she seems to single the “patient” out, making physical contact her top priority. She’s always focused on the one in need, leaving the capable other to fend for themselves until her healing is done. It’s as if she’s a sponge, spontaneously drawn to soak up the sad or wounded energy. We joke about the magical capabilities, by calling the process, “fur-therapy.” She thinks it’s just “being a dog.”
In these pandemic days of video medical appointments and tele-therapy, she insists on laying on the needy lap—a circle-dog all curled-up to provide optimal care. Time and energy are unimportant to Sara. She’s there for the duration, taking in the stress while imparting warmth and comfort.
Recently, Em had a tele-therapy session and Sara assumed her normal healing position in his lap. Then, as Em became agitated, Sara suddenly began to shiver. She seemed uncontrollably cold, which is odd given that it’s summer in California and human laps are typically especially warm. Em noted her strange behavior. The session ended rather abruptly due to his intense emotional reaction. What did Sara sense?
Following the session, Em lay on the bed to regain his balance. Normally, Sara would assume her familiar conditioned position on his lap to snooze. But she behaved differently. She refused to sleep and instead, she turned away from him and laid down at the foot of the bed. He called and coaxed her to come to him, but she completely ignored his requests and, in fact, wouldn’t even look at him.
Then Em noticed something he’d never seen before. Sara continued shaking, but now it didn’t seem that she was cold. Instead, It looked like she was shaking to throw off the negative energy she had absorbed from him. Our conclusion was that his negative mood had been too much for her. She had reached overload! Apparently she was just too maxed-out and couldn’t convert the bad energy to good. Furthermore, she refused to come anywhere near him for the rest of the evening.
The following day, Em regained perspective and equilibrium and Sara couldn’t get enough of him. Perhaps she deemed the remaining energy work to be possible. Or maybe he was feeling so much better she just wanted to soak-up some of that positive energy. In any case, her presence was sorely needed and made all the difference in his day of recovery.
This story is an anecdotal, intuitive recollection of “a day in the life with Sara.” There’s nothing scientific or measurable. However, when you find yourself in need of some therapy, rather than asking, “Is there a doctor in the house?”, why not consider fur-therapy. Simply ask, “Is there a dachshund in the house?” We think someone will answer the call and come running.
An addendum: As usual for a weekend, we went to get coffee at one of our favorite coffee bars. A woman sitting next to us, noticed Sara and turned toward her. We introduced Sara and the lady smiled and asked to pet her. Then, she requested, “May I hold her?” We gently handed over all 9 pounds of Sara and she was immediately comfortable with the stranger. Then we glanced at the woman’s face to see that tears were streaming down her cheeks. She said, “You have no idea how much I needed this love, thank you sooo much!” Sara responded with a couple of quick licks—which always means, “You’re welcome.”
Related Story and Music
Sara’s older half-sister Isabella (Izzi-B) was our previous “Mystical Doctor,” hanging a shingle outside our home for 16 years. She later became a well-known Italian personality after many adventures in Tuscany. The following story called “Isabella” was written for her in 2013 and we share it now in her loving memory.
When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. We’re ready! Teachers have been and continue to be around us all of the time.
In the early 1950s, teachers were often contained within a small box in the living room. Of course, we’re talking about the newly minted Zenith TV set. Aside from family and close friends, our early influencers and heroes often arrived via the flickering black and white screen. Animation was reserved for Saturday morning cartoons, so during the week, we watched other role models. Truth be told, much of our character and many values came from popular figures like Andy Griffith, Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers. To help guide us through our family dynamics, we watched Ozzie and Harriett Nelson, June and Ward Cleaver (Leave It to Beaver), Margaret and Jim Anderson (Father Knows Best), or Steven Douglas (My Three Sons). Although devoid of diversity or feminism, underlying values like honesty, respect, responsibility and family still came through loud and clear.
By the time we reach the ages of two or three, most of us are capable of conceptualizing fundamental values. With each passing year, those values are re-enforced, emphasized and strengthened. The imprint of those early experiences leaves an indelible mark, even if the values morph and change over time.
Recently, our daughter and her family left for a vacation/family reunion in Tennessee. Instinctively, one of us said goodbye with the phrase “Happy Trails,” as a cheerful sendoff. Even if you don’t know where the phrase originated, you would most likely interpret it as “safe travels,” “godspeed” or something like that, which it is. But it’s also so much more.
Upon later reflection, we talked about how that phrase “Happy Trails” so easily rolled off the tongue that day, after so many years. When we were about three years old, we were hypnotized, sitting on the floor in front of the TV with “rabbit ears” on top. We peered into the grainy image on the screen to see Roy Rogers and Dale Evans perched atop their famous horses, Trigger and Buttermilk. They smiled and effortlessly performed one good deed after another with their trusty dog, Bullet always close-at-hand. Their side-kick, Pat Brady sometimes showed-up in a cloud of dust around his old reliable Jeep, Nelly Belle. Once the deeds were done and all was right in the world, Roy and Dale would send us off with their familiar theme song, Happy Trails. Smiling and content, we’d sigh and then patiently wait for the next episode—promised with the line in their song, “until we meet again.“
Roy and Dale delivered such a kind-hearted, values-laden message for impressionable young hearts to hear. They were dependable and generous cow-folks who lived the same values both on and off the screen. Authentic. The real thing. That song was lovingly written by Dale when she thought The Roy Rogers Show needed a theme song, and Dale just showed-up at rehearsal one day with music in-hand and asked everyone to just give it a try. She thought they might like it and they did! From that day on, Happy Trails became an integral part of everything they did together. Long before the idea of marketing a show such as theirs, Happy Trails became their well-known brand—how appropriate for the wild west!
“It’s funny how some words stay in your head,” is a line from a song we wrote back in 2007 called Settle Down. Surely some research has been done to explain those snippets that become loop-tapes in our brains. We’re fortunate to share a history that includes similar experiences and simpler times—nice people who modeled family values, having five children of their own. With an engaging and uplifting message, Happy Trails has become a sweet, value-able reminder of those times and the many good deeds that the “Rogers partners” shared with us—some really great teachers have appeared.
The following video contains footage from the original Roy Rogers Show—introduction and closing song.
Click the following link to hear the fully orchestrated version of “Happy Trails,” with complete lyrics and interesting historical photos.
Historic photos/video courtesy of vintage.es, Getty Images and YouTube—thanks.
Related Music and Story
You might also be interested our musical story called “Settle Down” which deals with similar ideas about how simple words and values can stay with us for an entire lifetime—and how we can spend a lifetime trying to actually live them.
We were born right smack-dab in the middle of the 20th century. Our entire lives have been full of national middle-class possibility. The Great American Dream was truly achievable, if not expected. The idea was so ingrained in us that we never thought consciously about it. Hard work was the key. As Americans, ideals were at our fingertips—the promise of equal opportunity for all, freedom, prosperity and justice. Right? We fully understood the power of that promise and took full advantage of our privilege. Privilege. Back then, we had no idea that being white had anything to do with anything. But now, we clearly understand that isn’t true. As most “people of color” would say at that time, those years may have seemed more like an American nightmare.
The President of the US at the time was Harry Truman, who signed an Executive Order calling for military integration of races in 1948. Shortly after that, in 1954 the Supreme Court declared an end to Jim Crow laws that allowed separate schools for black and white students. That seminal case, Brown v. The Board of Education, signaled the beginning of the end of state-sponsored segregation.
So we were born into the era of desegregation—at least that was our assumption. Seventy-three years later we caught a first-hand glimpse into a different perspective, through a virtual reality documentary film, “Traveling While Black.” The Canadian/American film was directed by Roger Ross Williams and released in 2019. It was both shocking and powerful for us. The film was set in Ben’s Chili Bowl, a well-known diner in Washington DC. Through the magic of 3-D headsets, we sat virtually with three African-American people in a 4 person booth, listening as they talked about their experience as traveling citizens. It seemed so realistic. Clearly, we had lived in different times, places and cultures. The truth is, we were fellow Americans, but to those people of color, we were inhabitants of totally different countries on opposite sides of the earth. What they said was disturbing and deeply sad.
In 1936, during the era of Jim Crow laws mandating segregation, New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green wrote the “Green Book” to help those of color navigate the hostile and often dangerous American highways and byways. The automobile generally symbolized freedom and made leisure travel possible. Disturbed with “separate, but unequal” public transportation, African-Americans bought cars, if they could, to gain some degree of control over their lives. But even though they could travel, they were often met with a hostile experience—routinely denied access to motels, restrooms, diners, and all other necessities while on the road. The “Green Book” became an essential guide to avoid “discomfort, discrimination, segregation and insult,” as George Schuyler wrote in 1930. It truly was a stressful period in American history where unconscionable discrimination was openly enforced until 1965 when many of the laws were finally overturned. But that certainly wasn’t the end of disdain and discrimination.
Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice sat across the table from us at Ben’s Chili Bar, recounting the details of the tragic day when her son died. Everyone in the diner respectfully turned to listen—you could have heard a pin drop. On November 22, 2014 a 12-year-old African-American boy, full of promise, was killed in Cleveland, Ohio. A 26-year-old white policeman, Timothy Loehmann, was the on-duty officer that day. Rice was carrying a replica toy gun which was all the reason Officer Loehmann needed to justify shooting him. The event happened in the blink of an eye. The squad car pulled alongside Tamir, who visibly shrugged his shoulders. In the police camera footage that’s all we saw. But Loehmann responded to the shrug with gunshots. Tamir died the following day.
Our experience that afternoon in the Chili Bowl was terribly uncomfortable, as we sat there alongside the community of color. We were riveted to every word painfully shared by Samaria Rice. All eyes were focused on her and also on us, her booth-mates and the only white people in the room. They looked to us for minute indications of shock, sadness, empathy, solidarity—humanity. Whether traveling across our country or even within their own neighborhoods, people of color have told similar heart-wrenching accounts. Tamir’s story is but one sad tale of events—amid countless insults and injury over centuries. We hope that the “regulars” at Ben’s Chili Bowl who were peering into our faces, saw the empathy and humanity they longed to see.
The hope for shared humanity was the overarching message in the “movie. “The “Green Book” remains an important historic reminder that change and promise may be slow in coming, but they are always possible. We must believe that—and make it so.
Related Story and Music
“End of the Line,” written in 2005 also explores the importance of moving beyond a dualistic world-view to become more accepting of differences; less focused on division; interested in breaking down barriers—simply more inclusive. Feel free to check it out if you’re so inclined.
On a beautiful sunny, cloudless June day in San Diego, something amazing happened. Following our lunch on the patio, we left the door wide open to let outside breezes in. Suddenly, there was a fluttering—a shadowy silhouette against the stark white ceiling. A lone monarch butterfly had decided to pay us a summery afternoon visit. She flitted silently, exploring every nook and cranny—first the bookcase, then the pictures and knick-knacks on the shelves. She floated across the room with intention, lightly touching the corner of the mantle, and then momentarily paused for a short rest on the back of a chair.
Cheryl was in the room at the time, reclining on the sofa—a post-lunch lull. She sighed when the butterfly gracefully swooped to clear the door frame, and then watched the antics as she worked her way across the room. Suddenly our unannounced guest landed directly in front of Cheryl’s face and seemed to be staring, unblinkingly at her. Wide-eyed, Cheryl lay nearly breathless, not wanting to make a sound or sudden move—butterflies are notoriously shy, you know. Could it be that this graceful visitor had a message to deliver?
Have you ever had a monarch butterfly visit you in your home—in your face? It seems pretty rare, so we felt both curious and honored. We decided reflect on the possible meaning of this impromptu encounter. First of all, the monarch butterfly is among the most beautiful of all the butterflies. Their name, Monarch, Is fitting. If there was ever a monarchy over all butterflies, one of these beauties would surely be appointed Queen over the entire Kingdom.
For millennia, cultures around the world have recognized the grace and beauty of the butterfly. Their presence has been considered a sign that we, as humans, might be on our right path, and will most probably achieve our chosen goals. They are also viewed as delicate messengers announcing an impending rebirth or spiritual transformation—arriving to help us navigate through life or simply nudge us onward along the path already chosen. Some say that they’re drawn to particular people by a specific vibration, a subtle energy that emanates from their chosen companion.
Our conclusion: this was a day of joyful reflection and celebration—perhaps it was a time for preparation, signaling some profound events about to unfold. As we continued talking about the brief visit, our thoughts, too, began to take flight. Our conversation became more playful and lighthearted. Imaginations fluttered, then soared effortlessly through the air, floating high above a beautiful landscaped urban canyon. After a few minutes of ideas, dreams and exploration, we touched ground again. All of a sudden, the world seemed more open, inspiring, expansive and exciting!
Fortunately, our butterfly-friend made an entrance that could not be ignored. We concluded that the message had, in fact, been received! We wonder, though, how many silent messengers fly close by, unnoticed every day. What clues have we missed by being too busy, too oblivious to our surroundings to note subtle changes? If nothing else, our colorful friend reminded us to watch more carefully, listen more intently and stay open, hopeful and engaged. She nudged us to pay closer attention to quiet information available to us. Surely, when it comes to magical insights and majestic influence, the Monarch definitely rules!
The saying goes that all you really need in this life is love, a therapist and a good friend, not necessarily in that order, or even all of them at the same time. The “Big Three.” It’s dynamic. For us the love can be a person, a thing or an activity; the therapist can be a religious leader, counselor or healer; and the friend can be a spouse, family member, acquaintance or a beloved pet. In fact, the best of times is when love, the therapist and the friend ARE experienced, all three together. And once in a great while, it’s possible to have all three wrapped into one—for example, in the form of that special little dog. She can be a trusted confidant, someone who will never disclose a single word you’ve said. She can deliver fur therapy that dries the most mournful tears. She might follow every step you make, mirroring the very essence of friendship. To imagine Life without the “Big Three” is to ask the question: How long can you hold your breath under water?
Not that long.
Our morning walk/exercise takes us by a beautiful sculpture that always makes us smile. The name is “Flame of Friendship” by the famous Mexican artist/sculptor Leonardo Nierman, located between the Marina and the Convention Center in San Diego. It was dedicated in 2000 as an expression of the warm friendship that exists between the US and Mexico—a centuries-old partnership, an intertwining of cultures, faiths and the very definitions of the two countries.
Friendship is a fundamental human need that finds expression at many levels: personal, interpersonal, cultural and national, creating bonds that we might literally guard with our very lives. Why? Because our humanity depends on them. We share a fundamental human need for warmth and connection. May the Flame of Friendship! burn ever more brightly.
You might be interested in few other stories and songs about different expressions of friendship that have been meaningful for us over the years. Following are three musical stories that begin painting a picture of what friendship/love can look like in the everyday and how simple actions can instantly plumb the depths of feeling, emotion and life itself.
Something happened as we drove home the other day.
Returning from a routine visit into Fiesole to buy a few groceries and for Em to get a haircut, we rounded the curve just beyond the small town of Borgunto, home to the “bottle-neck capital” of Italy. To our surprise, an oncoming car flashed its headlights. It was broad daylight and we wondered, “What’s that about? Was that a friend and we just didn’t recognize their car?” A few more yards and we encountered another oncoming car. Again, headlights flashed. “What’s going on here? Is there something wrong with the car that we don’t know about?”
Then, just after the last turn off (and the final escape route) we saw them: Two police officers were randomly signaling cars to pull over for a routine check. Their style and flair in doing such a mundane task was actually a thing of beauty. They each wore the recognizable uniform of the Carabinieri, local police—navy blue head to toe, single-breasted blazer, silver braid around the red and white collar and cuffs, red piped epaulets on each shoulder, single red stripes down each trouser leg, a dramatic white diagonal sash, and black boots, where they store their little hand held “stop sign on a stick” when it’s not in use.
We amuse ourselves by calling those ridiculous signaling devices “lollipops,” and so of course we refer to the historically significant and highly esteemed carabinieri as the “lollipop police.” Oh yes, they carry another piece of equipment at all times, a holstered pistol, which is classified as an “ordinary” weapon. But, as beautiful as they are, these dedicated enforcers of the law are far more than “eye candy.” They are the keepers of all things lawful.
We thought little of the request since we had all the necessary documents—title, registration, and international driver’s license—neatly stashed and at the ready in the glove box. We were seasoned “residents,” models of perfectly honest, part-time Italians with flawless organization skills. We had been randomly pulled over before, so this seemed somewhat routine. We soon discovered that it was anything but!
One officer strolled over to the driver’s side window, while the second remained at a safe distance, evidently serving as the back-up “protector” just in case a fight broke out. The impressive figure at the window examined the neatly stacked documents in his gloved hand, and then without a word, walked over to his colleague. Together they looked at our documents as we watched their faces change from “cool Italians” to “puzzled police officers.” Then, after several minutes, they opened the trunk of their subcompact Fiat squad car and took out a voluminous book of rules—so massive, it took both of them to pick it up. One started leafing through the pages and then turned it over to his partner, pointing to a particular place on the page. His forehead wrinkled and eyes squinted. We laughed to each other thinking that maybe we had a couple of trainees on our hands. In previous checks, the officers had only made cursory glances at the documents. These guys clearly didn’t know what they were doing—or so we thought.
The first officer returned to our car and said, “C’è un problema. Parlate italiano?” “There is a problem. Do you speak Italian?” Since our language skills were iffy at best, we said, “No.” We thought under-stating was the best strategy—they might feel sorry for us and let us go.
Without hesitation, the officer continued his explanation in full speed Italian. We clearly understood key words like, invalido, invalid, and knew that we indeed had a problem. We just didn’t know exactly what, yet. Time to call our friend and attorney, Barbara. After about 5 seconds of hearing our explanation, she asked to speak to the officer. We heard her muffled chattering and his responses. We understood quasi niente, almost nothing. The officer handed the phone back and Barbara’s instructions were clear, “You have no chance. You must pay il multo, the fine, sulla strada, on the road. And you cannot drive la macchina, the car—ancora, again.
WHAT?!! A FINE?!! CAN’T DRIVE THE CAR?!! BUT, BUT . . .
Once we realized that we had to pay, we asked, “quanto costa, how much?” (Even tourists can ask “how much” but usually to buy souvenirs and pay the check after lunch). 275 euro was the reply, plus an additional 73 euro for something else, yet unidentified. Nearly 350 total! We asked, “How do we pay?” “In contante, in cash,” came the answer.
Okay. Let’s review.
We just received a fine of over 300 euro that must be paid in cash right now. We usually have about 40-50 euro between us on a good day. We can’t drive our car to the bank in Fiesole to get the money. Our international driver’s licenses were useless. The only choice was to ask the carabinieri to give us a ride to the bank.
At first they seem surprised, but soon realized that it was the only possible solution. So we climbed into the backseat of the subcompact Italian squad car, sequestered criminals locked in, and headed in the direction of town. One officer apologized for the inconvenience. “Mi dispiace per questo, I’m sorry for this.” Then, the other officer decided that small talk was in order, probably since they didn’t often have captive Americans on board. “Gioca pallacanestra?” We gave each other blank stares in disbelief. Then he offered in stilted English, “Bahs-keet-ball, you play?” Oh yeah . . . that question. Em is 6’5” and so it’s the single most-asked question of his entire life. (But in Italy, his height earns him the distinction of fetching top-shelf items at the grocery stores for many Italian mammas). The officer went on to say that it was his dream to play basketball—with Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq is 7’-1”. Mr Carabinieri is maybe 5’-8” in his police boots. The idea made us chuckle but we didn’t let on—B-ball talk or not, we were still in trouble with the law.
As luck would have it, the local carabinieri headquarters is directly across the street from Banca Toscana. Once out of the car, we headed into the bank before returning to finalize our paperwork at the carabinieri headquarters. Fiorella, our favorite teller saw the looks of dismay on our faces and immediately asked, “Che è successo, what happened?” We mumbled our new vocabulary words and phrases, “la macchina, multo, sulla strada, carabinieri.” She said, “Mamma mia! Quanto costa? She shook her head side to side, grimaced and offered her condolences with a deeply sincere sadness, “Mi dispiace. I’m sorry.”
After making the report and paying the fine, we were told that neither of us could drive the car. The car documents showed that we had not done the mandatory revisione, which is the bi-annual service/safety check required by Italian law. Unfortunately, we didn’t know such a law existed. The car was to be parked until the revisione could be scheduled. In addition, they confiscated Em’s US driver’s license just for good measure, since we had resident status and were required by Italian law to have patenti italiani—the much dreaded Italian driver’s license. Oops!
So here’s the riddle: Can a car, that can’t be legally driven, arrive across town for a scheduled appointment, when driven by people who can’t drive because they don’t have valid driver’s licenses?
This is actually a trick question. The answer is always forse, maybe in Italy, no matter what the question is.
The two pleasant carabinieri officers kindly returned us to our car with strict orders not to drive it—except for our immediate drive directly home (that favor required some significant begging and groveling). We were under strict orders that the car was to remain parked until we were legally able to drive it again. We promised to comply as we climbed out of the back seat of the tiny squad car. Then, in one wonderful moment of total linguistic confusion, rather than saying “Goodbye,” Mr Carabinieri extended his hand, and in an effort to close on a high note of international accord, simply said, in English, “HELLO.” Then he turned in confident military fashion and climbed back into his government-issued Fiat squad car. Their work was finished.
They surely went immediately to Riccardo‘s bar for coffee, but as for us, our “problemi“ problems had just begun!
This is a true “Italian Moments” story that took place in Fiesole Italy in the spring of 2005.
You might be interested in another kind of “Italian car story,” except this one has a happier ending—called “True Italians.”
Cheryl & Emerson
Quality time is great—but quantity time is what relationships are built on! Take time to partner.