This is the second Fourth of July in a row that I’ve been out of the U.S. I have to admit that I miss it. In our neighborhood on Staten Island, it begins with a good-natured race between the two parks in the area, with us cheering the runners on. Then there’s the usual barbecue.
The part I always liked the most, though, is the fireworks. I like gathering with zillions of New Yorkers on a hot summer night, everyone trying to get a good look at the big show on the East River. There’s nothing like the mix of people in my native city, their good humor, their wisecracks, and how all of a sudden people who’ve been trained all their lives to be hard and cynical look like kids on Christmas morning.
So The Spartan Woman and I were up on the mountaintop in Umbria this Fourth. We had to celebrate somehow, but to our friends here, it’s just another workday. I’ve been wanting to go to a place I think is incredibly beautiful, and it’s full of meaning, too. It’s especially true in this turbulent year, as “leaders” around the world foment discord, hatred, fear, and bigotry.
The place is the Eremo delle Carcere. “Eremo” means “hermitage,” and “carcere” can mean “jail” or “cell.” In this case, it refers to a monk’s cell, and also in this case, the monk is St. Francis of Assisi, known around here as San Francesco. It is on the mountain called Subasio, which rises behind Assisi. We can see Subasio across the valley from our house.
Francesco used to go up to the Eremo to pray and to meditate. The site is just beautiful, seemingly carved into a wooded mountainside, with a commanding view of the Tiber Valley. I can’t fully convey the feeling of peace and tranquillity that surrounds it. The surrounding woods themselves act as a sort of cathedral space, with their tall trees, some of them with roots that cling to stone walls. The tourists and pilgrims visiting the site don’t diminish the serenity. (And typical of such sites in Italy, there are discreet signs everywhere urging silence. )
Why the Eremo, why Francesco? The dude was a rich spoiled kid who gave it all away to lead a life of poverty and to preach peace and love, both of his God, but also of our fellow souls and nature. His values and wishes seemed like a good antidote to the bellicosity we see, hear, and read coming from a certain failed Queens casino owner. (Okay, I can take the peace and love thing only so far.)
I’ll admit, it’s easy to be cynical about the Francesco schtick. Assisi, a beautiful little city near Perugia, has its share of what we like to call Catholic supermarkets, tacky souvenir shops peddling statuettes of fat happy Franciscan monks. And the region we call home for part of the year, Umbria, has seized upon Francesco as a marketing tool. Officials here took the airport from one saint (Sant’Egidio) and renamed it Aeroporto San Francesco. The Sentiero Francescano della Pace passes near our house, and there’s a little tourism industry built around people who want to trace the saint’s steps as he walked from his native Assisi to Gubbio, some 50 kilometers away. It’s as though they’ve had to come up with something to position the region and to distinguish it from (cue Umbrian eye roll here) the flashy neighbor Toscana.
But as far as marketing tools go, it’s pretty benign. And it fits—this region does have a gentle, mystical feel to it, especially if you walk through the woods and peer over hills to see the mists and fogs of the cooler months of the year.
So as my friends in the United States celebrate the country’s birth, I’m wishing I could be there at least for the fireworks and some beer. But I’m not there, and the distance has been good, for a few reasons. The stress induced by the constant ranting and braying by some of our fellow United Statesers (in Italian, you can say “statunitense” instead of “American”) has just fallen away. At least until I go web surfing. So let’s just take a deep breath, feel the love of our friends and family, and try not to be obsessed with the dark forces running around. Francesco would want it that way.