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January 15, 2010
It has taken us a while to come home from Italy -- we may not be fully back, even now. Unpacking the clothes, cats and medications came first, but the rest took a while to unfold -- the few ceramics we bought didn't come out of hiding until October, and it was New Year's Eve before we got around to the paintings. But now there are large and small memories in art throughout the house: the cutting board whose handle is a cinghiale (a wild boar), another beauty made of olive wood, the lovely pitchers, in search of which I haunted the thrift shop and the Cascine market all last year, the enormous platter that holds court on the dining room table. We really hadn't enough wall space for new paintings, but there were some we loved too much to Ieave behind: the one of Piazza della Repubblica, bustling with people and shot with patches of gold leaf, the carousel in the corner of the square, scraps of conversation visible in the form of bits of Italian text floating like a cloud over the people's heads. And the one of the duomo by the same artist: its rear view, all stripes of green and white and black marble, its tiled dome glowing against a night sky. So we retired the Stubbs zebra and moved the Arcimboldo fruit-and-vegetable people and the engraving of a fountain at Versailles. We can always move them back sometime.

It's nice to change something. I love Stubbs' Zebra, a portrait of an 18th/century celebrity animal brought to London for the delight of Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, the first zebra anyone in England had ever seen. But the people who come here for spiritual direction have been sitting across from me and looking at him for years, and I imagine the novelty has quite worn off. The fruit people should be invigorating: they are figures representing the four seasons, and they are composed entirely of produce -- Summer's nose is a green squash, Autumn's mustachioed lip is a chestnut burr and Winter's sad mouth is a rippled mushroom. Arcimboldo must have been a strange bird, but people at the time adored his stuff and so do I.

My visitor and I talk about her spiritual life. Nothing that I had in place before -- all of which I loved -- is in place now, she says. It's all completely different stuff. She will move to a new place and new work in a few month's time, so her spiritual practice may well change again. She may pick up some of her old practices, and they will be the sweeter for having been on the shelf for a spell. She may find yet more new ones. There are so many ways of praying and listening to God that no one person could possibly use them all, but all of us can use some of them.

When your temporal life changes, your spiritual life can change, too. Sometimes this makes people nervous: they're not sure it's okay to change spiritual practices. Aren't I being fickle? Aren't you supposed to just keep on keeping on and wait for the fit to return? Well, you can, but you needn't. There's no "should" in spiritual practice -- it's all a gift, every last prayer and every last prayerbook, every last form of scripture reading and every last way of meditation. It's all to help us walk more closely with the God who loves to walk with us. And sometimes a change mixes things up just enough to reveal something that was unseen before.

Something's different, another visitor says, looking around the room as she sits down for our first talk since my return. Hmmn, I say, maybe the Arcimboldo? It used to be behind you, so you probably never really looked at it.

she says, smiling at the ridiculous fruit-and-vegetable profiles. Ridiculous, yes, but remarkable. They had always been in the room, but she was only seeing them now.


Take a look at Arcimboldo's produce people and other bizarre paintings by this 16th/century Italian "surrealist":

And here is George Stubbs' Zebra:

To see Valerie Perkins' two wonderful paintings of Florence, visit the Hodgepodge at
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