Playing with the Italians

My father was furious when he heard that I had been playing with the Italians. That’s the first thing I remembered. On the last day of a conference, I attended a workshop that sounded harmless enough. It had to do with what one person could do to help create a sustainable environment. To my horror, the leaders started right in by asking us to hold hands with the people beside us. I usually manage to avoid this sort of thing — the handholding, hugging, foot massage sort of thing. But it was too late. The woman beside me was clearly a workshop pro and quickly had my hand in a firm grip.

We were instructed to tell each other a story about the first time in our memories in which we had taken an independent action that had made a difference. I’d gone to hear a good talk, maybe get inspired — who knows, maybe get an idea for a sermon, and here I was trapped, hand-held, and we were going to share. You go first, I said.

She told me of her childhood passion to be a nun. Her parents were against it. For one thing, they were Lutherans. But she persisted in her goal. She took her stand and was a nun for many years, making a significant contribution, making a difference. Part of my brain was registering her story — while another part was frantically trying to come up with something to say when my turn came. I had nothing. A bell rang. My partner stopped talking. I was on. I had nothing. For an awful moment, my mind stayed blank. And then out it came: the story of an experience I had not merely forgotten but actually didn’t even know I knew.

I was seven years old, perhaps, maybe eight; being raised in England. It was the immediate aftermath of the war. We lived in a large city, across from a park. In winter, after slight, seldom snowfalls, we kids took our sleds to the long hill in the center of the park. Most often there was no snow. But sometimes there was ice — black and treacherous. Only the most reckless took a sled to it. This winter, we discovered that the hill had been adopted by the Italians–Italian prisoners of war. The war had long been over for them. They were held in minimum security while governments made the deals that would send them back home.

Confined to camps during the night they were free to roam the city during the daylight hours. They had discovered the park and the iced-over hill. They had no skis but their big hob-nailed boots served well enough in a sport second nature to them. Knees bent, arms outspread, they flew down the hill laughing, shouting in their wonderful, so un-English language, thrilling in the familiar bite of the cold wind. They had survived. They were alive. And, soon, they would be going home. We found each other, the children and the Italians. The first brave boy — it wasn’t me — allowed himself to be picked up, slung up and over and onto the shoulders of an Alpine skier sans skis borne laughing and screeching down the hill and carried or dragged by the scruff of the neck up again. The adventure went on for days, maybe weeks. We rushed to the hill after school and early in the frosty weekend mornings. Friends were made. Friendship and trust. “Hey, Harry, look, no hands!”

One evening, I came into the house flushed and breathless. Parents. “What on earth have you been doing?” “Playing with the Italians!” I said with joy, pride. My father was furious when he heard I had been playing with the Italians. They were the enemy. “But the war is over.” “But they don’t have any guns.” “But they weren’t bombing us. They didn’t even want to fight us. They told us they didn’t.” It was no use. I was up against official doctrine. They Italians were the enemy just the same. We’d spent the nights of two years or more in a damp and stinking air-raid shelter. Much of the city was still in ruins. Great Aunt Rose had died in the London blitz. And I was playing with the enemy. Loud and clear. Stay away from the Italians.

I think my mother — still with us at the age of 87 — would confirm it if you ask her: I was a good boy. Obedient. Happy. My dad’s pal. But something was wrong with being forbidden such joy and friendship because of something called the enemy — a concept that didn’t fit my experience of these loving and life-loving men. I disobeyed. It had been a long afternoon of sliding, walking, playing soccer — even, I remember as I write, games of cowboys and Indians. Talk about your spaghetti westerns.

I must have been late getting home because, as I was leaving the park my father was crossing the street toward the entrance.”What have you been doing?” he shouted, getting right to it. Tears fought back. Tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. Not grown enough yet for that British stiff upper lip. But I came out with it. Damn the torpedoes. “I was playing with the Italians,” I said. And he slapped my face. That was terrible. Terrible more in the shock of it than the pain. My father had never hit me. Never did again. And — here’s the moment remembered that started the story flowing — I remember looking full into his anger and saying, finally, “Alright. But I’m going back.”

It’s odd, but I don’t remember anything of what happened then. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps that is simply how the story ends. There was no more hitting. I would have remembered. No doubt there were threats about what further disobedience would bring. But my parents must have given it up. Because I did, in fact, go back to play with the Italians until, one day, they were gone. That was the end of the story I told my companion at the workshop. But it’s not the end of this story.

When this part of the workshop exercise was over the leaders asked if anyone wanted to share with the whole group what they had said to their partners. I couldn’t believe myself. What on earth was I doing? My hand was up. I was going to share! I told the story again and then found myself unfolding what, moment by moment, I was realizing the story meant. It was a story about self-discovery, personal power, and taking a stand that would make a difference. My father’s reaction to my playing with the Italians came out of so many hard, sad, and bitter places within him. Some places he had built for himself out of the stuff a harsh life had handed him. Some of his reaction simply came out of the culture that made him — a culture of colonial pride that the sun never set on the empire’s flag in a world full of foreigners — foreigners to be fought, hated, feared, ridiculed. There wasn’t a nationality I hadn’t been taught to hate, fear, watch out for, look down on, make fun of. I remember seeing posters depicting Gandhi: caricatures of a funny little man in a loin cloth who was making trouble for us in India.

But in that defiant moment — in that declaration, “Alright. But I’m going back” — in that moment I was confronting all of that with the reality — and the legitimacy — of my own experience. I was separating myself out from the tangled mess of ingrained bigotry, fear, and self-serving stereotyping. Those men were not the enemy. They were just men. Fathers. Brothers. Sons.

They were friends. They were not evil — and, if that laughter, friendship, joy-sharing was evil then I was going to play with it and know it firsthand. My father was wrong.

My parents were wrong. And, if that’s how everybody thought, then everybody could be wrong and I would forever have to make up my own mind and trust my own inner sense of rightness. That’s what the workshop leaders were helping us to find, of course — some moment in our lives in which rightness, truth, justice was revealed so crystal-clear and unadorned that acting upon it was a matter of course. After all, the story I recovered was not about courage. The point is not that I had the nerve to defy my father so that I could go back and have fun with my friends.

What came to me so clearly as I recounted the story was that I was determined to go back to my friends quite simply because it was the right thing to do. Not only was it right — it was necessary. I was going back to play with the Italians because my parent’s reason for forbidding me — their reason and perhaps the entire adult culture’s reason — was so clearly, so unarguably, wrong. I was not defying my father so much as I was responding to something no less than a revelation. Perhaps a better term would be illumination. My experience of the men I played with was the pure experience of relationship — relationship with people — not as Italians, not as foreigners, certainly not as the enemy.

Now, of course, if these men had been gathered in the park with knives between their teeth, submachine guns and grenades in their hands, and murder in their hearts then any sensible adult’s warning would be to stay away. But these men were free from all that. These men were now free of that megalomaniac. They were free of the lies, the fanatic mesmerism. I experienced these men in their freedom. The evil was not in them. The evil had been in all the constructions that create the semantic convenience of “foreigner” and “enemy.” My experience became conviction. “And a little child shall lead them.”

I’m reminded of the vision of Black Elk. Perhaps when we think of the famous Black Elk and his vision we think of an imposing chief atop the mighty mountain. But Black Elk was only nine years old when he had his vision of all the people as one people.

… I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, he said, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world.

And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.

And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree

to shelter all the children of one mother and one father.

And I saw that it was holy.

Jesus said, “You shall not enter the Kingdom of God unless you become as a little child.” Among those who argue about such things, there is a lot of argument about what Jesus might have meant by The Kingdom of God. I’m with those who believe he was referring to a state of being — a transformed state of being, sacredly human, free of the social and cultural trappings that dehumanize us. And to understand that state, Jesus was saying, one must put oneself back into the mind of the child, back into the experience of the child and there be reminded of what is lost and with what manner of evil we replace what is lost.

Black Elk prefaces his story of his childhood vision with these words,

But if the vision was true and mighty,

as I know, it is true and mighty yet;

for such things are of the spirit

…it is in the darkness of their eyes

that men get lost.

The poet Wordsworth wrote that we come to earth “trailing clouds of glory.” He was expressing a popular romantic notion of his time that the newborn are embodiments of pure spirits, that we are born with all the inherent power we need to fulfill our possibilities. That power to fulfill our possibilities is what some have called the “true self.”

The Unitarian theologian, Henry Nelson Wieman, referred to that “true self,” as our “original experience.” Our original experience, Wieman said, “Is … every experience we can have when we do not conceal it or overlay it with conventional experience. Original experience, he said, “Is the true self, in contrast to the uniformities adopted by everyone in society to facilitate the routine adjustments of everyday life.”

Sadly, among the routine adjustments of everyday life are the adjustments to myths of inferiority, prejudices and bigotries, the division of humankind into them and us. From birth, then, our true self, our “original experience,” begins to be suppressed by the social demand to conform to conventional experience. Originality, unique individuality, begins to fall under the requirements of the herd.

This is disempowerment — the empowerment of the mass and the disempowerment of the individual. Think of the power of those Nazi soldiers amassed at the rally at Nuremburg. Think of how disempowered each of those soldiers had to be to make that power of the mass possible. The leaders of the workshop I attended knew that each of us has given up much of our power along the way. We have given up much of our individual power in order to facilitate the routine adjustments of everyday life.

My childhood experience, with its illumination of my power to see truths to which my own parents and teachers were blind, that experience did fade from memory. In time the story itself was lost and, perhaps with the lost story was lost something of that awesome, absolute conviction. Like most of us, I had forgotten that I had the power to stand before the world — even before the great, father god — declare what I knew, and vow to act upon it.

Somewhere in us is a story in which we are the hero, fearless before gods and giants, girded up as the scriptures say in the whole armor of God, knowing for a certainty that right makes might. Each of you has a story, waiting to be remembered, about the power you had and have still to make a difference. Begin to tell your story to someone–even though you may not know yet that you know it. Just begin by saying, “The first time I realized I could make a difference was …” The story will rush forward to be told.

By the way, as it happened, the story of my story had not ended. The people in the workshop were obviously moved. There was a hearty round of applause and the program was over. As I was making my way out of the crowded room, a young woman came up to me and said, “My grandfather was an Italian prisoner of war in your city. He often spoke of playing with the boys in the park. Thank you, for playing with my grandfather.”