And then there’s that other thing…

Well the reality of the situation is that after four months in Italy I’m returning “home” and sometimes I think I’m just dusting my hands and saying, “well that’s that,” but really it’s much more than that.  I keep thinking: “and then there’s that other thing…”  One more reason why I can’t wait to go home, one more reason why I’m reluctant to leave.  It’s always an area of interest, when your heart feels so torn and beat up about something.  An area of pain or suffering, perhaps, but adding yet another layer to life and as a writer I can’t help but say: “I hate that this is happening to me, but I love that this is happening to me.”

Honestly, there are going to be problems anywhere you go.  And I’m not raining on anybody’s parade here, I’m just saying.  You go to a place thinking that it’s as emotionally easy as looking at a photograph of that place.   Then you go, you meet people.  Not only do you eventually have to leave them, sometimes they leave you, and they leave you forever, and you’re left grieving for them in a place foreign to you, feeling more alone than ever.  Because of your turmoil, the place begins to be a special place to you.  You develop a way of living.  You become accustomed to certain things (for me, the church bells ringing all the time, the pigeons, and these huge keys for all the doors) and then you find that you have to leave all of this behind, to practically start over.

Life is all about “continual beginnings” and “habitual fresh starts” as J.R.R. Tolkien would have it.  But I think it’s a matter of realizing that it is a “fresh” start.  You don’t pick up right where you left off, when you come home.  You start exactly as you find yourself in that moment.  And if I may be allowed to quote Tolkien again….  “How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand, there is no going back?”  We live too much in the past.  We experience one thing, and instead of accepting what it has been, we go back to try to experience the same thing again, but it never works like that.  Nothing is the same, and you are left feeling empty and dissatisfied with yourself and everybody else.

And in a sense this is going into the idea of home more than the idea of being abroad.   I love home.  It’s a crazy place filled with love and stupid fights about who gets the last piece of pie, and tons of people, not just siblings but aunts and uncles and it’s this time of year, Christmas, that I get to enter back into that circle of family, that just keeps stretching with more births and marriages.

But I find that when I am dreaming of home, I am dreaming of my home in Cleveland.  When I realize that I no longer live in Cleveland, I am dreaming of the old house in Pittsburgh, where we had fires in the winter and out of my window at night I could see the stars, and in the morning see a damp, dull light fingering its way through a bleak sky.  I loved those mornings.  And it’s a harsh reality to remember the summer before I went away, the summer we moved (again) into a house where I was never at home in the literal sense.  And this is nobody’s fault, it’s just the way it was.

What is important in coming back? Things are never as you expect them to be.  They always end up being different.  Here I am filled with nostalgia for my old homes, and yet I have the spirit and the joy of those old homes waiting for me in this new house.

Sure, life is hard.  And I’m not saying that lightly.  (Well, I am, but I’m not saying it thoughtlessly.)  I have a few brutally hard things running through my mind.  The things that keep me up at night. Yes, life is hard and it’s something to accept and something to deal with.  And also I have been reading Thomas Watson’s “All Things for Good” and he has been laying particular emphasis on the fact that some of the best things come from our difficulties and our sufferings.  God is constantly nurturing and growing us, growing us to him, always.  He’s not stomping on our heads or starving us or deserting us entirely or leaving us to die.  The simple fact that everything is, in the end, for our own good is in itself a hard thing to believe and accept, but once you can accept it, it frees you from so much fear and worry and doubt.

I have learned so much while I have been here.  I love so many things, I will miss so many things.  But this is wonderful about the human capacity to love and appreciate—there are even more things for me to love and develop the further I plunge into life.  And really, even though “going home” seems to imply a sense of safety and security, it feels more like an adventure right now, almost like home is a place I’ve never gone to before.

And I cannot, absolutely cannot resist quoting Wendell Berry as my closing thought: “I see that the life of this place is always emerging beyond expectation or prediction or typicality, that it is unique, given to the world minute by minute, only once, never to be repeated. And this is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving. We are alive within mystery, by miracle.”

Smaller Things Called Life

For example, the joy of being able to tell something as precise and mysterious as time.  I was overwhelmed by this revelation.  At any given moment to be able to glance down at your wrist and pin the day to a time line in half a second.  Even disregarding the fact that with every tick a second of your life is taken away from you.












During the week there is the flurry of school and learning.  Sometimes, there is that moment of calm, peace, where I make things and nothing else exists except the thing I am making.



































On Saturdays life is full, and I clean by vacuuming and mopping floors and scrubbing the bathroom, and then I do my laundry, sometimes in the sink.












And there are the days when I work late in my studio at school, and there are tea and biscuits there on the table, a thousand things to write, but I get up and go to the window and look out into a blue night and a white moon, and a thousand lights moving as if they were fire instead of electricity.













And sometimes I have to wonder, what would it be like it I had never come here at all, if my shoes never made such a sound against the floor, if I never felt my way along to the door in the dark and then burst out of the door into the lights of an Italian night, and I have to wonder, would I miss what I never experienced?
















Even here, the little things in life go on.  Eating, doing laundry, going to the bathroom, taking showers, sleeping, walking, coughing, sneezing, feeling hot, feeling cold, cleaning, listening to music, tapping your foot, waiting.  Everything is happening in the midst of the adventure, and the normal things that go on are what make the experience seem so real, so natural. And still, when I pray, I thank God for sending me here.

On Sunday The Church Bells Are Ringing

It is a lovely, cool morning with an empty sky and a bright sun, and the church bells are ringing every hour or half hour or even every fifteen minutes.  I haven’t counted yet.  I slept for a long time last night, and in my subconsciousness was thinking of verb conjugations for my Italian homework.  So much knowledge has been crammed into my brain this last week I have little time to think about anything else.  I’m still trying to sort it all out, and when I woke up this morning to the beautiful sun, I had a sense of peace and calm.

Last night at 8pm I finally stopped studying to go find myself dinner.  Claudia and the family are gone for the week, and I ran out of food last night.  I walked around various places, almost stepped into one or two restaurants, but decided against them.  Finally, not being able to ignore my hunger, I picked a restaurant that had the Tuscan soup which I love (and have forgotten the name of.)  The soup is made with bread, beans, and vegetables.  It was the only thing I ordered (besides some house wine), which the waitress seemed to think was strange.  But what was even stranger for her was when I ordered fresh bread after I was finished with my soup. “Solo pane? solo pane?” she kept saying, looking at me. “Si, si—solo pane!” I said, making some weird gesture with my arm to give her the idea that I knew it was weird to order only bread.

When no one was looking, I crammed a few pieces of bread into my purse.

I felt like some sort of character from a Dickens novel, spending the last of his money on a meal, and saving some of the food—stuffing it away—so no one would know how desperate he was.  Of course, I wasn’t desperate, I just knew that the bread would come in handy for today when I would take myself out for a picnic to the gardens, and I could make a sandwich with the bread I took.

I paid the bill and went to sit in the Piazza, perfectly alone and perfectly content to be alone watching all these interesting people, listening to the only sound there was to listen to: the blended hum of people talking, with an occasional screech from a child or cheering of a crowd.  I walked home in the dark and tried to concentrate on more Italian, but my eyes were heavy and I went to bed, leaving it all for today.

And when today came, I had breakfast with a Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger placemat, my typical cocoa with orzo in warm milk, and some kind of biscuit.  I sat quietly eating, while listening to a refreshing sermon that I heard once a long time ago.  When it was over, I kept wishing it hadn’t ended.  Now the rest of the Italian waits for me, and I’m about to go in, resolutely, to butcher conjugations.  I have half an idea my teacher will be horrified with me tomorrow, but if she is we’ll have to have some one on one time.

Today I’m going to try to find the botanical gardens.  I am ready for some rest—not the rest of sleeping, but the willed kind of a rest.  The kind of rest you experience when you say: “I’m not going to let this or that worry me.”  I am ready to walk out of this apartment, into the old stone street shaded by the city wall, up the hills, and into beauty.  I am ready to experience beauty, to become one with it and reconciled with it, because it is peace and comfort to know that Christ is beauty and everything lives and breathes in him, and I can hear him when the wind blows and I can hear him in the light of the sun and the birds when they sing.  So I go out to be at rest.

After my verb conjugations are complete.

Venice | Murano, Burano, Torcello, and Santa Margherita Piazza

It’s mid afternoon here, and the bells of the churches are all clanging together, blending with the background hum of people talking in Santa Margherita around the corner, and staccato heels clicking down the quiet alley where our apartment is.  I can hear birds too, and beyond even these noises, the sound of boats and water.  After that—nothing.  It’s quiet in the midst of the noise, if that makes any sense.

Yesterday my aunt and I set off to some of the outer islands.  We visited Burano first, which is basically known (as far as I could tell) for it’s brightly colored houses (see picture.) Yeah. But at the same time I was really struck by the fact that people paint their houses to go with the other houses, creating an atmosphere for the whole town.  Usually when people do anything about their houses, it concerns their personal taste only, and they paint or decorate it accordingly.  To me, Burano conveyed a sense of community even when it came to taste and decorations.  Maybe it’s a cultural thing.

After Burano we took the Vaporetto to Torcello, one of the oldest islands around Venice. By oldest meaning I believe it was the first to reach civilization, but with the rise of Venice the population dwindled, and now it’s down to 60 people, a Byzantine cathedral, and the old church of Santa Fosca.  We didn’t tour the cathedral, since the ticket prices were just a little above comfort level, and we could glimpse the inside on our way out.  We probably weren’t supposed to peek but we did anyway.  We amused ourselves by looking in the gardens at old, crumbling statues outlining grapevines, and by wandering down the gravel paths and looking at the teal colored canal.  When we see tourists heading in one direction, we usually head off in the opposite direction.


On Torcello, we stopped at a restaurant to get a cappuccino and spritz.  We sat under a tent and scribbled away for about forty-five minutes or an hour.  Then the restaurant closed and they had to unlock the gate for us to get out.  We made our way back along the canal to the Vaporetto stop.  The man playing his accordion made a very weak attempt to hide the fact that he already had made several Euros by putting them under a basket, keeping only one Euro in the basket.  Desperate, I guess.  But his music was good.  It’s funny because walking around the towns you hear them playing a great deal of Henry Mancini and Frank Sinatra. I wonder why, sometimes.  And sometimes I don’t wonder—sometimes I just enjoy it and hum under my breath.

(The reason that the above picture is better quality is kind of funny… it was at this point in our trip that I realized that all my pictures were turning out hazy and blurry because the lens had a layer of filth on it.  So I cleaned it up about five times and started taking pictures with better results.) The next island was Murano, the glass blowing island.  Here some of the factories go back a few hundred years.  It’s a generalization to say that everything was beautiful, but everything really was.  I’ve never seen so many unique pieces in my life, although we visited a glass blowing factory when I was little (or I seem to remember that—I could have made it up).

When we came back at last (making one gelato stop—how could we not?—before reaching home) I was in all literal meaning footsore and weary.  It was at this point I started missing my younger brother Duncan’s foot massages.  He’s the only one who can massage my feet without making me laugh hysterically. (But you didn’t really need to know that, did you?) After snacking on fresh peas, cherries, bread, salami, asiago cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers all day it felt good to have a nice spaghetti dinner out in the courtyard.  Italians eat late—around eight.  Or nine.  Or ten.  It depends. No earlier than eight, usually.  They’re still having cocktails and appetizers.

Auntie went up to work and after a bit I went out into Santa Margherita square, sat by the Executioner’s house (he doesn’t live there anymore… he moved out about a hundred years ago. Or more.). I enjoyed this very much.  It was calming in a way to watch the Italians have their idea of a good time.  There was that hum of people talking.  The square was full of them, sitting in circles on the stone ground, occupying every spare seat and bench.  For the bartenders, every night is a busy night.   It’s not a mad kind of a party, not a dangerous kind of mob.  It’s a kind of gathering of all sorts of friends—again, a kind of community thing, and even at eleven at night families were there with their children of all ages running about everywhere.  It was very interesting.

But I like the quieter things, too.  So I left the square and went to the Ponte dell’Accademia, which is at the south-eastern end of the Grand Canal, from what I can tell.  I wouldn’t trust my sense of direction, though.  Last night I still that Venice was on the Western side of Italy.  As in the Tyrrhenian Sea side.  Again, something else you didn’t need to know.  And I’ll end with this little thing.  I like to watch the five distinct lights that shine on the Grand Canal looking out from the Accademia Bridge… I like to watch them flicker and move with the water, disturbed only for a moment by a passing water bus or a taxi or a gondola with a tenor singing some Italian song.  Behind me sits a man with some instrument akin to a guitar, playing music that sounds like Michael Praetorius.

“Gratzie, Signor,” I say, smiling and dropping a euro into his case.  He smiles back at me, melodically, as graceful as his music.  That’s how I like to end my nights.

I See Them

My next few blog posts will be about a personal experience I am having in Venice, Italy.  The trip is primarily a writing trip, although that gets confusing with the EU security people, so I just say: “I’m traveling… to travel.”  Well that’s entirely true as well.  The wonder-lust was setting in, and still I couldn’t believe that I was on a plane to Venice.

Well then my aunt (who originally asked me to accompany her in October of 2011) pointed out that since we were flying from Dusseldorf to Venice, we would probably fly over the Alps.  After that began an agonized wait to find out if we actually had a window seat.  No.  The middle seat and the aisle seat.  But a sweet German lady who was supposed to have the window seat asked if she could have the aisle seat since she had a problem with her hip.  That landed me right next to the window in the front row of the plane.  The countryside of Germany was passing through in patches underneath the clouds, farmlands, little splotches of trees here and there, straight roads, and lots of lakes.   I fell asleep here and there, especially when there were too many clouds to see.  Then I woke up, and was inspired to look ahead.

“Oh my gosh,” I said to my aunt; “I see them!”

And I really did.  I could have recognized them anywhere, just from the pictures.  And I was concerned about cloud-coverage.  The Alps rose high above the clouds in jagged points, and my feelings towards mountains spiked up to a whole different level.

In the meantime, the flattened countryside suddenly gave way and we were above the Dolomites, which were in their turn snow capped and beautiful.  The clouds cleared, and we looked down into valleys with villages nestled into them, and rivers flowing down the mountains.  I felt like running to the emergency exit and parachuting out, finding the Swiss Alps, and living my own idea of a Johanna Spyri book.

So the plane flew on, and eventually we landed.  And eventually got a bus, which eventually made its way into the city, and we got the water bus, which eventually, after many stops and jolts, got us to Rialto, where we found a phone store (to buy a phone card)  not to mention the 3000 tourists crowding the bridge.  But finally we made our last stop off the Grand Canal, and a short Italian man made his way towards us and asked if we were the people staying in the apartment.  And we were.  We followed him through a confusing maze of squares and alleys, and in Santa Margherita we were at the apartment.

The further we walked into the city, the more I saw, increased my astonishment and my disbelief of what was happening.  Every time I leave the country I think: “This can’t possibly be happening to me.  Stuff like this doesn’t happen to people like me, to small people.” But God blessed me in measures beyond my belief, and here I am.  The place we’re staying has marble floors and steps, copper basins for the kitchen sink, Ionian pillars outside the doors leading to the courtyard… and a wall of glass that looks out into the courtyard.   Narrow, double doors into my room, and on the headboard of the bed is an elaborate, somewhat gothic piece, which includes a painting of Mary and Joseph and Jesus on their way to Egypt.  High ceilings everywhere, and the curtains are long, deep red.

There are so many different things in this room alone, so many different stories in each gothic or artistic ornament that I am still finding new things everywhere in this small space.

Last night as we were walking along some of the canals, I said: “It’s hard to believe we haven’t always lived like this, in a way.  I feel like we’ve always had the pizza, and the gelato, and watched the people go by.”  In a way it was true, but I think it was the feeling of comfort, of feeling like you could very easily get accustomed to a certain life style.

I woke up at 12:30 in the afternoon the next day (which is today).  For breakfast, on the terrace, we had coffee yoghurt (which is much better than it sounds) soft brown bread with apricot jam, soft asiago cheese, fresh peaches from the market stands down the street, and tea.  After walking around the city for a few hours, we came back and ate some more bread and cheese, with fresh cucumbers and tomatoes and peas also from the markets.  The peas we took out of the pods, and by the time we were finished had a whole bowl full of empty pods.  They were delicious.

I don’t exactly know what to expect from this trip.  I have a line from Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse running through my head that says: “Seeking means having a goal and being blind to everything else. Finding means having an open mind.”  And I think that’s what I want to have, is an open mind.  I feel like the more open I am, the more I learn.

I also know that stories lurk in very narrow corners, in a single corner, and there are many of those here.  It’s not so much the broad perspective, although that does serve for context.  But for a poem, or a story, very little is needed.  In the courtyard alone are probably about thirty or forty poems that could be written (but probably won’t be.)  Little things.  There are only so many words and images you can use contextually for a single poem.  This opens the horizons to a great measure.

In the meantime, I have felt so jet-lagged and exhausted that I’ve even begun to question my identity as a writer.  To walk into the churches and be shocked and stunned by the beauty inside is to feel an evaporation of the all the poor stories I ever had in my head.  It’s comforting to know that’s only a temporary feeling.  The inspiration usually hits later.

For those of you who are looking for updates on my trip to Venice, I’ll try to remember to take and post pictures.  I’m not a photographer, so excuse the quality and the angles and exposure.  At least you’ll get an idea of what it’s like.

I did order gelato last night in Italian.  It was an exciting moment in the life of Ruby Hopkins.