Friday, October 17, 2014

On Sicily -- A Birthday and a Birthday Greeting from a Dead Friend



On the morning of my 60th birthday, I sat with my wife on a bus marked with the nickname "Tiny." A dignified Sicilian gentleman named Antonio with white hair and wearing a short dark tie was driving the bus. We were en route, as part of a Rick Steves’ tour, from Cefalu to Mount Aetna.

The highway was broad and well-maintained, passing across high barren plateaus. Sometimes, the road was borne over deep, stony valleys where water-courses, dry and choked with pale, white gravel, could be seen. Italian highway planners seem reluctant to damage the terrain of their ancient landscape by cutting roads across it – often, the freeway was carried on concrete viaducts traversing the valleys from hilltop to hilltop. These long viaducts had a noble aspect, monumental and severe, a kind of classical gravitas.

On one upgrade, Mount Aetna came into view, a high blue dome hovering like a distant zeppelin over the slopes of the mountains closer to the highway. Above the steepest slope on the plateau, lifted up toward the bright sun like an offering on a brown altar, was the city of Enna. Compact and pale, the town spiked a summit, a crown of cathedrals and fortifications.

It excited me to see Enna and I thought of Milton’s simile for the garden of Eden in Paradise Lost:

Not that fair field

Of Enna, where Proserpin gath’ring flowers,

Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis

Was gather’d, which cost Ceres all that pain

To seek her through the world...

Mari Accardi, the tour-guide, remarked that the Greeks had built a shining temple to Demeter at Enna above the fertile uplands where grains were grown in great abundance. The high fields hanging over the highway were all plowed, the grass tucked under clods of brown earth, but seemed fallow.

The bus stopped near the exit to Enna at an Auto-Grill, a kind of resting place with a large and modern truck stop. On horizon, Enna on its lofty peak was visible; on the other horizon, we saw Aetna signaling its volcanic heart to the world with a diaphanous plume of smoke.

In the Auto-Grill, on a counter, books were displayed. These were hardbound volumes, marked for sale at 9 Euros apiece, classics of literature. I perused the titles: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Dickens’ David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, a volume of novels by D’Annunzio, and, most curiously, a bilingual edition of Edgar Lee Masters’ The Spoon River Anthology, sumptuously bound, each epitaph in English faced with its Italian translation.

Of course, I was thinking about death, my own and the deaths of those that I had known. The day was sunny and bright, not a cloud intervened between my face and cheeks and brow and the sun.



But, later, of course, it was foggy on the slopes of Mount Aetna. Clouds concealed the summit and dampened the lava fields congealed on the mountain’s flanks.

On the grim outskirts of Catania, an industrial city on the Ionian Sea,"Tiny" had turned toward the mountain, wrapped in stormy-looking blue and green clouds. Aetna is vast and covers many miles, less a mountain that an enormous landscape sloping inexorably toward the calderas 11,000 feet above the sea. At first, the bus passed between jagged ridges of charcoal-black lava – the lava fields were intricate badlands cleft with deep fissures and bulging pinnacled domes, places that seemed literally impassable, serrated teeth of stone poised to shred your feet and disembowel you if you slipped and fell. Among this moonscape, on stark promontories, there were small factories, aluminum foundries, plastic injection molding plants, warehouses and machine shops. These industrial facilities stood atop spiny ridges or in pits hollowed out of the lava fields.

The road wound upward, twisting and turning through small villages. The ancient houses were built from stacked and rough-hewn blocks of lava. As the narrow highway climbed the peak, we passed zigzagging retaining walls of lava stone and sometimes the road ascended through narrow grooves with stacked basalt sides, a kind of canal that led up toward the heights. The landscape was a slanting checkerboard of small fields, some of them vineyards or olive groves, walled off from one another by chest-high mounds of volcanic rock.

It was gloomy with fog and the roadway was wet. Once, the clouds opened for an instant and we could see a towering ridge overhead, livid with tongues of reddish and brown lava poured down from above in huge avalanches of tumbled rock. Different flows of lava were superimposed on one another and in the ash next to the road a kind of broom-shaped plant, something like sage brush, was slowly devouring the boulders and turning them into black soil. Some parts of the mighty rampart had eroded into dust and pebbles and there were even a few forlorn-looking grooves of trees, folded into hollows on the hillside. An abandoned monastery stood in a pit surrounded by low cliffs of lava – apparently, prayer had stopped the lava flow at the very threshold of the structure, although, I supposed that if anyone had been in the building the heat of the magma would have roasted them alive. Next to a bend in the road, a house’s tile roof protruded from field of black, fissured stone. The texture of the hillsides varied: here slick with eroded, particulate pebbles and ashen dust, sometimes rigid with long, slanting dikes of unbroken rock. In places, the lava seemed very fresh, excremental, the shit of the volcano smeared in huge landslide-shaped flows across the slope.

The fog closed around the bus and the windows were damp with dewy sweat. Some tourist buildings swam into view, a chalet-like exterior riding a knuckle of barren volcanic rock. Many buses were parked around a crater and a chairlift ascended toward the hidden peak, only a few of its iron pillars visible on the sheer hill.

It was chilly here, 6000 feet above the sea. A big dining hall, mostly open to the elements extended across a terrace. On some video monitors, a DVD showed recent eruptions of the mountain, red spires and plumes of dancing lava with dramatic music, narrators on different monitors speaking a babel of tongues. Girls set out Dixie cups of liqueur, a 160 proof cognac called Lava of Aetna, Limoncello, and some kind of cream drink infused with brandy. The toilets were crowded and people were buying bottles of booze, postcards, necklaces made from polished obsidian, and other souvenirs.

I wandered uphill toward the Silvestry Crater. The ground underfoot was glassy and made a crinkling sound as I walked. It seemed familiar to me. Where I had encountered this kind of earth before? It came to me as I stood on the edge of the crater: it was cinder, the surface of the athletic tracks on which I had run when I was a young man in High School.

The crater yawned below, a foggy abyss lined with black and yellow pebbles. A German guide was squatting at the edge of the caldera, speaking to some fellow Germans who seemed to be kneeling in homage to the vast crater. The German was using very dramatic language and I could hear many picturesque verbs, words like "bursting forth" and "falling inward," all separable verbs signifying both violence and motion. The clouds ruptured for just an instant and, in an nearby pit, I saw a sort of spiral labyrinth made from loaf-sized stones, projectiles with rounded edges that had been ejected from the volcanic and, then, arrayed in this decorative pattern.

The fog was alternately very close and dense, and, then, diffuse but it was impossible to see anything above us. Sometimes, pebble-like rain pelted the side of the volcano.

My wife had told people that it was my birthday to my discomfort and embarrassment. Several women came from our group came to me as I stood overlooking the huge crater foaming with mist where the stentorian German was discoursing on the science of eruptions. The women were very sweet and congratulated me on my birthday. They assured me that life was good and a gift and that we should be grateful for remaining alive to see such wonders as the volcano hidden in the clouds swirling around us.

Conversations of this kind make me uncomfortable. I said something to the effect that I had come to Aetna to hurl myself into the caldera like Empedocles, but, based on their kind words, had changed my mind. The ladies looked at me, a little aghast, and with incomprehension. I said that I had never thought that I would live to the age that now afflicted me.

One of the women said that two of her brothers had died before they were sixty. I nodded my head. "I’m glad to be alive," I said. "There are many who didn’t make it." The woman shook her head and sighed to agree with me.

The road coiled down the side of the mountain, passing folds in the lava fields where there were wet groves of trees dripping with moisture. We emerged from the pale, wraith-like clouds into a glittering landscape of vineyards and small villages clinging to the precipitous slopes. Below, the sea shone with light, marked with strange patterns, like causeways in the blue-green water.


Plato says that men were taught to write so that they could forget. Before written language, human memory was stronger and more resilient.

I tried to bring to memory the faces of those that I had known who were now dead: my father, grandmothers, my college friend, Jim LeClaire, who died suddenly at 38 when his heart burst, my father-in-law, Dick Hart and my Aunt Rose, who taught English in St. Peter, as well as Professor Terry Dilley, who was my closest friend and who perished at the end of this icy Spring. I thought of the many lawsuits on which I had worked involving deaths on lonely highways, during blizzards, people slaughtered by drunk drivers, vehicles upended in frozen drainage ditches and filling with water, slips and falls that had been fatal for elderly people, children killed by cancers and blood diseases, a young mother smitten with cerebral hemorrhage and dying as she gave birth to her daughter.

Once, when I was about forty, a man bearing my name (although spelled "Beckman" without the double ‘n’), was killed when he lost control of his pickup truck after a night spent drinking in a tavern in Blooming Prairie. The accident occurred in March on a gravel road and the man’s vehicle was not discovered until the next day, tipped over on its cab in a half-frozen drainage ditch. I didn’t know about the accident until someone called me from a law firm that was my adversary in a case that I was litigating. The lawyer on the other end of the phone connection asked me if I "was still alive." "As far as I know," I said. "Well, there was a report that you were killed last night near Blooming Prairie," the man said. ‘It must be a mistake," I told him. The lawyer opposing me was a woman named Becky. She had been afraid to place the call because she knew that I had children and a wife and did not want to face the possibility that I had been killed in the crash. "I will tell Becky that you are okay," the lawyer said to me.

It was strange to see obituaries and a death notice bearing my name. The dead man was my age, although born in a different month of the year.



The Greek philosopher, Empedocles, lived in Akragas, now called Agrigento, around 450 BC. He practiced medicine and wrote two books, On Nature and Purifications. On the basis of fragments surviving from these works, we know that Empedocles thought that all things were rooted in earth, air, fire, and water. He proclaimed the conservation of matter: according to his doctrine, elemental matter could be neither created nor destroyed. The four fundamental elements were unchanging because divine, manifestations of "shining Zeus, life-giving Hera, Aidoneus, and Nestis, who with her tears fills the springs from which mortals draw the water of life." The power of Eros, or Aphrodite, mingles "water, earth, air, and sun together...(thus creating) the forms and colors of all mortal things..." Aphrodite’s love is opposed by a cosmic antagonist, strife, a power that tears the elements apart. Nature is the spectacle of these deities combining as a result of love and, then, separating under the influence of strife.

Empedocles described his philosophical method as "stepping from summit to summit, not plodding along a single track to the end." He said: "What is right may properly be uttered even twice."

Vain and, probably, quarrelsome, like all Greek philosophers, Empedocles warranted his theories by performing miracles. He prophesied his own death – or, perhaps, transfiguration – since he seems to have asserted that he would simply vanish from the earth, specifying the date when this would happen. At the appointed hour, he is said to have climbed to the crater of Mount Aetna and hurled himself into the chthonian fires. Other sources claim that when Empedocles’ prophecy as to his doom failed, he fled Sicily for parts unknown and was never seen again. A legend arose that a search party on Aetna found one of his boots, turned to bronze by the volcano’s magma and, then, spit from the caldera.



The Benanti vineyard lies on the gentle slope of Mount Aetna, a couple kilometers inland from the shining sea. The winery occupies a 17th century palazzo in a garden with spacious, ancient outbuildings, large open sheds roofed with slumping orange tiles, a damp cellar lined with concrete where portly wine barrels repose, and a swimming pool-shaped vat where grapes are crushed. Four or five acres of grape vines staked in rows in the black volcanic soil occupy the hill that slants upward behind the buildings in the direction of the sheltering volcano. In this part of Sicily, Mount Aetna is simply called "our mountain" and is regarded as kind and infinitely generous.

An attractive young woman led us up the slope behind the buildings to the vineyards. We sampled a few of the purple and green grapes – they were sweet but very acidic. A blight had ruptured some of the grapes in the bunches, shrinking and withering the skin about the empty core. The young woman said that this was the result of excessive rain. The higher ground above the vineyards was haunted by pale mists that seemed to ooze from the earth and the groves of olives and old ilex. Our guide probed the cinders underfoot and I picked up one of them, a pumice bomb about the size of my thumb that was remarkably light, a combination of fire and earth and the moist air.

The owner of the vineyard, Caballero Benanti, had an intelligent face, bespectacled eyes above a noble nose and a neatly trimmed grey beard. He spoke with great passion about the process of making his wines. When Italians speak English, their prosody is very musical – they articulate with great clarity, singing each syllable, and, almost always, accenting the "ed" in words like "formed" or "embraced." Sicilian gentry are concerned to tell you their genealogy, emphasizing their ancestral homes, usually on the mainland of Italy, the venerable nature of their family, their nobility and impressive history of dynastic marriages and Signor Benanti was no exception – he spoke, at length, of palaces, tracts of land and the villages indentured to those acreages, princesses, counts and countesses. He said that his vineyard produced grapes at various elevations on the slopes of Mount Aetna and that the flavor of the wine made from those grapes was determined by the altitude at which the vines were grown, their exposure to the sun, and the different constituencies of the soil. When someone asked him if he irrigated his fields, Signor Benanti responded with horror: "Oh, no," he said, "that would destroy the proper chemistry of the wine." Signor Benanti had been educated as a pharmacist and he told us that the manufacture of wine required the most acute scientific observation and attentiveness.

At the conclusion of his discourse, Signor Benanti made a melodramatic gesture of groping within his own entrails to draw forth his beating heart. He cupped his imaginary heart in both hands and, then, offered it to us: "my wine is made from the sun and from this heart." Of course, it was a sales pitch, but emotionally effective, nonetheless.

We sat at large tables in a side-building open, on its sides, to the landscape, a dignified presence of great beauty and immemorial age. Lackeys poured wine for us and we ate hors d’ouevres: various cheeses, olives, caponata and bruschetta. People became drunk and hilarious. Women posed for pictures with the stylish and handsome Signor Benanti. He told the ladies that the word "Minnesota" meant "stiff tits" in Italian. There was much giggling and the wealthier members of our group ordered cases of his wine, a great extravagance since the bottles sold for 35 to 40 Euros each with a shipping charge of 12 dollars per bottle. Mari Accardi told us that the young woman who had led the tour over the porous black cinders of the vineyard had been a professional basketball player – "she is from the North," Ms. Accardi said, "but she became fascinated by this place and is now an apprentice here, learning the business."

Signor Benanti insisted that the group visit his family chapel. We entered through a door inside the estate, behind the big ivy-covered walls surrounding the palazzo and its property. The chapel was shaped something like a kiln or an old oven, a sort of dome rising over a marble altar in the center of the structure. A painting of an effeminate-looking Jesus, made in the 18th century, was mounted at one end of the building. Others sacred objets d’art hung overhead – a grisly 16th century crucifix of lime-wood and a life-size terra-cotta Madonna with child whose age and provenance Signor Benanti also explained. He said that the altar was consecrated and that a priest came to celebrate Mass in the chapel, sometimes as often as twice a month. The Mass was sung in Latin and Mr. Benanti demonstrated, chanting some phrases in a remarkably pure, and beautiful, tenor. Like most Sicilian gentlemen, there is something priestly about him – his religious education is impeccable, of course, and once he aspired to holy orders. He voice resounded in the vault overhead. "Listen to the acoustics," he said. "It is magnificent." He told us that there was a relic authenticated by Catholic authorities concealed in the altar. "If you have such a place," he said, "if this is your heritage, then, you must make use of it, even if it costs you more than a hundred-thousand dollars to renovate the chapel." Signor Benanti said that he opened the double doors behind us, an entry to the chapel on the public street, so that wayfarers and villagers could come into the little church and celebrate Mass with him.

Mike S– suggested that we say the Lord’s Prayer together in the chapel. Mike S– has a vibrant and commanding personality and his suggestions, of course, are persuasive. We spoke the Lord’s Prayer, a blessing upon our travels. I found myself moved. Perhaps, it was the great quantity of wine that I had consumed.



From the slopes of Aetna, we rode the bus to Taormina. The road was serpentine, twisting through little villages that seemed to blend into one another. Sun erupted through the clouds and on the volcano’s vast incline, I could see small domed churches, orderly orchards of lemon and citron and orange, grape arbors, ancient farmhouses with white stucco walls and brightly tiled roofs, the entire landscape glittering as if with dew. Raindrops decorating green plants and orange-tiled roofs coruscated in the flood of sunshine now breaking through the clouds. The sea, mysterious and bright, edged the land, rising up to meet the shores of black sand.

The mountain’s slope seemed to display the landscape, holding the villages and farms up to the sun’s inspection. The whole world was suddenly visible, disclosed in all its abundance and fertility. This was an ancient place, sacred for five-thousand years to many tribes and peoples. Under the volcano with its head garlanded with clouds, everything sparkled and each thing insisted upon its own particular revelation.

My wife saw a rainbow over the sea. The rainbow was bright, only a radiant arc, that launched itself from the zenith and plowed down into the turquoise water. "Terry Dilley is greeting you on your birthday," my wife said. I thought of Professor Dilley’s intelligent eyes and his kind smile. He died at home at the end of Spring and I had pronounced his eulogy at his funeral. "Do you recall," my wife said, "that Terry came to see you just two days before Angelica was born?" Angelica is my youngest daughter. I wasn’t sure that I remembered the encounter. "He pointed to the sky and said that there was a double rainbow and there it was!" my wife remembered. "You talked to him for a long time." In the recesses of my memory, I recalled seeing a double rainbow but the image was confused with paintings and photographs of such phenomena. I wondered what Terry and I had discussed – probably, a book that Terry had just finished or something that I was reading, local gossip, theology, perhaps (for a time, Terry had been a monk). But, try as I might to recall, nothing remained for me from that day.

"It’s Terry Dilley’s greeting," my wife repeated. I agreed with her. "It’s Terry Dilley’s greeting," I said. Empedocles reminds us that what is right may be uttered even twice.

The rainbow vanished. Near Taormina, the sea beat the shore with such fury that men and boys were surfing in its wild grey waves.



At the hotel in Taormina, a few people were kind enough to gather on the terrace for my birthday. They were other travelers from Minnesota. A watery sunset had painted the sky with colors like those in a late painting by Turner, whorls of mist tinted with oozing reds and yellows. The volcano was hidden in dark clouds. Another hill-town, even more impossibly lofty, crowned a huge column of bare stone overlooking Taormina and the hotel terrace. We opened a bottle of wine, a process that was difficult because of the way the flask was sealed. Constellations of little lights twinkled on the sloping landscape that the volcano had made.

"Would you have ever thought you would celebrate your 60th birthday in a place like this?" someone asked me. "No, never," I said.

Mike S– offered a toast. He dared me to write it in this essay, so here it is:

Here’s to the heat

But not the heat that burns shanties,

Rather the heat that drops panties.

H said his father had offered this toast, Irish in origin, at his own wedding.



Two days after I returned to Minnesota, the postman brought me a stiff brown envelope from Terry Dilley’s sister in Pierre, South Dakota. Several times, she had called me and indicated that she was going to send a photograph, but the picture had never arrived. I was afraid to open the envelope. Obviously, it contained the promised photograph. I hoped it wasn’t an image showing Terry and I engaged in discussion, laughing and happy on some long-forgotten evening – for some reason, the idea of a picture like that was upsetting to me.

At last, I opened the envelope. The photograph was a picture that Terry had taken forty years ago, before I knew him, an image of trees and snow at the Nature Center. I recalled that the framed picture had been displayed at Terry’s funeral.

The picture is very serene. It shows deciduous trees reduced to graceful, tapering columns by the winter’s cold. An unbroken mantle of snow covers the ground between the trees, perfectly white and pristine – not even a tiny arboreal animal has passed over these fields of snow. The bare trees and the snow and the wan winter light almost too weak to imprint the white with shadows are almost abstract: it is Winter’s silent temple.



This quote comes from a short story by Lydia Davis:

That fall, after the summer when they both died, she and my father, there was a point when I wanted to say to them, All right, you have died. I know that and you’ve been dead for a while, we have all absorbed this and we’ve explored the feelings we had at first, in reaction to it, surprising feelings, some of them, and the feelings we’re having now that a few months have gone by – but now it’s time for you to come back. You’ve been away long enough.

1 comment:

  1. Very poignant. Your lost friendship makes me feel like weeping.