Saturday, February 14, 2009

Love and Tolerance

I first ran this essay on Valentine's Day in 2008. The sentiments still stand.I am no great fan of Hallmark holidays, particularly if they don't bring in their wake a day off, and it is no platitude when I tell my wife every day is Valentine's around here. We are both middle aged and conscious of our own mortality, which is an essential component of love: the knowledge that it must end sooner or later, one way or the other.The funny thing for me, about Valentine's day is that I grew up in the Italian province that gave rise to the St Valentine's legend that is being "celebrated" and I had absolutely no knowledge of the connection. Poor self promotion you might say, and you'd be right but there is something refreshing about an entire city that has no clue how to sell itself as the birthplace of one of the more international and popular holidays. San Valentino da Interamna was a bishop who was martyred sometime between 250 and 300 A.D. for marrying a pagan Roman soldier and a Christian girl. As he was led off to his execution he reportedly kissed his jailer's blind daughter and pressed her hand whispering "from your Valentine" and as he was the Bishop of Interamna, the Roman name for Terni, and he was about to die, it was assumed his was the gesture of spiritual love. But the Church needed a new holiday ("holy day") to supersede a pagan fertility celebration and St Valentine was dredged up to fill the gap. In the next century Constantine declared Christianity the faith of the Empire and Valentine's gesture was no longer necessary. All this stuff is shrouded in myth and legend enough to make Terni the focus of worldwide attention today. However Terni has failed completely to capitalize on the myth. Besides my original home town is an industrial city famous for steel mills and Beretta handguns, not much of the city is ancient, or pretty like its medieval neighbors in the surrounding Umbrian hillsides. And actually living there surrounded by relatives is an intimidating prospect for a young man who harbors ambitions to see the world. Madame Bovary could easily have been set in the provincial chatterbox drawing rooms of this small city! The place got bombed flat during World War Two and now boasts a mostly American style grid pattern of streets in a natural bowl in the mountains that gets blisteringly hot in the summer and bitingly cold in winter. And to think my mother could have raised me in Rome, The Eternal City, but there it is. I have come, in middle age, to really like Terni, a city overlooked by tourists, because of its unpretentious provincial style, its care of the few Roman monuments it has and the lovingly redeveloped old quarter that has enjoyed modest renewal in the boom years of the 1990s. And the fact I no longer live there, I enjoy being a tourist in my home town.This was the street my grandmother grew up in, Via Barberini, before she left to become a teacher and a singer in the early 20th century.Valentine's Day appears to be a day for the western world to celebrate chocolates cards and flowers. We are encouraged by radio stations to observe the proprieties for our "sweeties" ( I am not fond of that word; it makes my wife sound like a box of Goobers) and all that stuff. For me its a day that encourages thoughts of tolerance and kindness, the foundations upon which love is built. I'm a nominal Catholic (I'm Italian what else could I be?) my wife is a Jew and neither of "our" religions can countenance either of us getting married to each other. Little wonder I have not much time for them.And that brings me to tolerance, and why I like Key West. Key West does a good deal better job than Terni of self promotion, but Key West, unlike Terni, tops the list of places to be an outcast. In California I found a great deal of judgement despite the stereotype, it could hardly be any other way in a state composed of 30 million type A personalities. The things that drive me crazy about Key West, the lackadasical approach principally, the lack of order and orgnization, are the things that give me hope for my old age. It's a small town, and one in which you can cherish chickens or put them (illegally) in a ring to fight, you can drink yourself into a stupor each night or appear toasted at the breakfast table and no one really minds. You can even be openly gay in 21st century America and no requires you to keep your fundamental self behind closed doors. Really, the absence of judgemental attitudes is striking, and it is refreshing, even though frequently irritating. Not passing judgement does not mean that one cannot hold an opinion, that would not be human, and as best as I can articulate it my definition of tolerance is not acting on one's (worst) impulses towards one's neighbors. Which in itself is a pretty loose definition! The gates to my heaven stretch wide when they are open...
My wife and I landed in Key West on Saint Valentine's after several days sailing from Mexico and we were exhausted by the passage so that after we walked the dogs on Christmas Tree Island we fell into a coma not bothering to notice what day it was. But that has always been the thing about St Valentine's day for me, its such an important day, the day of tolerance, I tend to overlook it, and I have all my life.