Uncategorized

Making Bread, Breaking Bread

“Italians just want to welcome people by sharing what they have, however simple, in abundance. An Italian’s role in life is to feed people. A lot. We can’t help it.” —Giorgio Locatelli, Made in Italy, Food and Stories

One of my earliest memories is of my mother making bread, her mixing the ingredients, kneading it, and forming it later into dome-shaped buns. I loved the yeasty tang of the raw dough she sometimes allowed me to taste before baking, and how the bread’s aroma filled the house while cooking and as she pulled the golden-brown loaves from the oven.

When living in Turkey, bread was available from the local bakery fresh every day. Buying two loves was requisite, as with a loaf of warm bread in hand on a cold day and its beckoning aroma rising from the loaf, it was nearly impossible to get home without eating a portion of what was supposed to be available for the next day’s meals. Walking to work in the morning while living in Izimir, loaves of bread could be found in bags tied to the people’s front door so that those who didn’t have enough, could be sure to get their daily bread.

Bread baking is an ancient art. As Theresa Machemer describes in her recent article in the Smithonian, “The World’s Oldest Bread is Rising Again,” bread was made in ancient Egypt 5,000 years ago. Recently, yeast spores from Egyptian artifacts have been brought to life again to make bread, and it’s reported to be delicious.

The perfect combination of flavor, crumb, and crust is what a baker looks for when making bread. At the Bread Library in Belgium, people are collecting sourdoughs from around the world and explore various techniques of making breads with sourdoughs. You can get a virtual tour of people’s breadmaking expertise in a variety of countries here.

San Francisco is famous for its sourdough bread, began when spunky little critters of wild yeast got inside miners’ bread starter and began fermentation. Wild yeast naturally finds its way into your bread when you leave the starter out on the counter. When Italians immigrated to America, some brought with them their bigas, their bread starters. Their bigas imbued with yeast from their home locations fused with the yeasts found in the areas they settled in. The bread the immigrants made was thus a fusion of the old world and  and the new.

At my house, we’re experimenting with cooking various foods mentioned in my book, A Space Between, with the intention of sharing recipes. Naturally, bread is one of those recipes, as it is a basic food. While we were living in London several years back, my husband began his starter. Each time he bakes bread, he sets his starter out on the counter for a few hours. When the grapes start coming on the vine this summer, he plans to set the starter out beneath the arbor to collect some of the wild yeast. This is how you can begin your starter.

two quarts of starter

Starter:

½ cup wheat
½ cup white flour
Water enough to make a thick batter, added a little at a time.

  • Place in a quart jar on the counter. Cover it with a cheese cloth and place a rubber band around the jar’s opening.
  • One day later mix a small quantity of flour and water and feed the starter. Leave the jar sitting on the counter.
  • On day three feed the starter again the same way. By the end of the third day you should see bubbles in the starter. Leave the jar sitting on the counter.
  • On the fourth day, remove some of the starter from the jar and feed the starter again. Leave the jar sitting on the counter.
  • Save what was removed and place it in a small container. Place this in the refrigerator.
  • Feed the starter again on the fifth day.
  • Next day, make bread using one cup of the starter.
  • Every time you take starter out to make bread (or pancakes or muffins,) feed the starter an amount equal to what you took out.
  • When baking bread, use what you need, feed the starter again, leave it out on the counter for a couple of hours and put the lid back on the jars. Then, place them in the refrigerator.
bread dough before cooking

As I write, a loaf of walnut rosemary bread with parmesan crust just came out of the oven. My husband, Michael, loves cooking and loves sharing food with others. He has coached a number of people through getting their starters going and making their first loaves of bread. Bread making is less of a science and more of an art, he says. You learn to make it with your hands and heart, through observation and taste.

Below is Michael’s recipe.

Basic Bread:

What I do is I fed the starter the day before (this is key to having your starter really active), then the next day I put 2 cups of the starter into a bowl with a cup of flour and a little bit of beer and stir until smooth like heavy pancake batter. The beer is a medium heavy amber that I made, and I usually save the bottom of the bottle to do bread (It’s kind of like putting a little sugar in the dough which you could do instead.)

  • Feeding the starter. The day before makes the yeast in your starter really active and this really helps. I let that sit in the bowl with saran wrap over it for three or four hours until it gets really active just like when you feed it; it usually doubles + in volume. I have started doing this at mid-day now, so it peaks just after dinner or a bit later.
  • At this point I mix in another 2 cups of flour and a bit more water and salt to taste.  I sometimes add a bit of organic cider vinegar too, but not always. You do want the dough to be a bit sticky as bread dough goes.
  • Once the dough is mixed up, knead it for a fairly short time (2-3 min.) on a floured surface and put it into a heavy pan that has been greased and floured like you are baking a cake. (I have been doing this step without flour using my bread scraper and just folding and folding.) Lately, I’m baking the bread in a triple wall stainless steel bowl inside my Dutch oven which adds steam without putting an extra pan of water in the oven. I put the bowl of dough into the refrigerator overnight to rise, covered tightly with saran wrap so the sourdough can do its work.
  • The next morning the dough will be at the top of the bowl. I sometimes let it warm up and rise a bit more depending on how the overnight rise has been. I preheat the oven to 460 degrees then turn it down to 415 for the last 15 minutes (but last time I tried 500 then turned it down to 450 for the last 15 min and liked the crust with the hotter oven.)
  • Once it hits temperature, I slit the dough with a sharp knife (some say use a razor blade) and carefully put the stainless-steel bowl with the dough into the castiron pot with the lid on for 30 minutes. I don’t preheat the Dutch oven because it’s only a matter of time working with a 500-degree piece of cast iron that you are going to burn yourself! I take the lid off for another 15 minutes more to brown up the crust. I leave the bread in the oven after I turn it off with the door open so the crust gets nice and crispy as the oven cools down. The tough part is waiting for the bread to cool down so you can try it. I’ve used this with the four variations of flour, and it comes out every time!
  • When I feed the starters, I usually have to pour some off, so it doesn’t overflow. I make pancakes or muffins from that occasionally.
  • Placing the bread on its side like this while it cools keeps the cut portion of the bread from drying out.
Rosemary walnut bread with parmesan crust

Making bread is a way to connect us not only to ancient cultures and to foods that have nurtured us for millennia, but a way to physically connect with the relationships that create the fabric of living. In my life, as is true for many, bread connects us to the community of others we sit at a table with, those whose lives we share and give ourselves to. In whatever form, whether steam buns made from rice flour, a grandmother’s rye, or sourdough, to break and eat bread together is to participate in a communal experience.

In participating in these shared experiences of living, we create relationships that reach beyond time.

Mother

She held me in her arms
like stone.  She was rock
and everything about her
seemed hard

except for the fact that
every movement she
made was bent toward
me, circling

around. I was the small
pebble in her palm, the one
she rubbed against
when worried.

She set the model before me,
but she was the rock I shaped
my life from. Today, her life
ground down

to gravel, when I lean to kiss
her good night. I tell her
“I love you,” and she holds
me firm, repeating one

of her two remaining sentences,
“We really do need our cereal,”
as if to mean “I love you.”
She won’t let go.

I hold her in my arms, rocks
in my throat. She knows
the foundation she has
built on.

The flint hidden in her
has burned
nearly everything
but this: The bread of life.

— Anna Citrino, from Saudade

Italian-American, music, poetry, Uncategorized

Music’s Power to Unify

20190922_103851“I will sing in San Francisco if I have to sing there in the streets, for I know the streets of San Francisco are free,” said Luisa Tetrazzini during a period when an unresolved dispute arose with Oscar Hammerstein who wanted her to sing only in New York. Considered one of the greatest opera singers of her day, on Christmas Eve, 1910, Tetrazzini sang to a crowd of a quarter million at Lotta’s Fountain in San Francisco. What a spectacle it must have been! When met with a wall in her negotiations with Hammerstein where no movement or resolution appeared possible, rather than continuing the fight head on, Tetrazzini moved around the obstacle. In that choice, a different world opened to her with open arms. For Luisa Tetrazzini, those arms were found in the people of San Francisco. The Chronicle’s headlines of that event demonstrate the city’s love for her.

Tetrazzini’s audience were those who had experienced the loss of family members during the great earthquake and fire of four years earlier, as well as the many who had left loved ones and their homelands behind in the difficult search to fulfill a dream of finding a better way to live than that of enduring the unbearably difficult hardships they faced in their home countries. Tetrazzini understood her audience that December night, and spoke to their hearts when she sang “The Last Rose of Summer.” The lyrics, written by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, describe the image of a remaining single rose holding on to its stem in winter’s cold, as a metaphor for being alone in a world where those you have loved are now gone.

Days grow short in December, and people long for warmth and light–desire to gather around a fire and drink something warm, and perhaps tell stories. The Christmas holiday is often a time where people return to be with their families to do these very things. We want our experiences during this time to be full of light and joy, though the reality is that many do not have family living nearby or family to turn to for warmth and acceptance. Sometimes situations we live with or in are very difficult, and loneliness and sorrow can roll over us like great clouds moving across the horizon, catching us up in its seemingly unending breadth and dimension.

20191210_163053

Present that Christmas Eve in 1910 to listen to Tetrazzini sing, and also named Luisa, is the character in my book, A Space Between. Newly immigrated from Calabria in southern Italy, she describes her story and the experience of Tetrazzini singing that evening.

MAKING A LIFE

In San Lucido I spun linen, silk and wool—thread sliding
through my fingers season after season
as I stared out at the sea’s horizon, wondering
how I could twist together my life’s frayed,
thin threads into something bigger than summer’s
white sun and winter’s cold, narrow room.

We’ve made a life here together, Gaetano and I,
loss, and hope, wound together in a garment of fog
that rolls in from across the Pacific. I walk through
my neighborhood, a thimble full of narrow streets—
a world no bigger than before but strange. Chinese,
Germans, Spaniards, Greeks, we are loose threads
dangling beneath this country’s clattering loom
of tongues, pale faces and pale ways, trying to see
how we might find our way into its fabric.

Gaetano has his barber’s shop, but I’ve given up
weaving. That was my other life. The children
are my weaving now—their lives binding this world
to the one we came from, their eyes, the rosary beads
I pray through, reinventing the world in America.

Arduino and Giovanni wait at the window
in the other room. I knead the bread, stir the soup.
Soon, Gaetano will arrive, his footsteps echoing
outside the door. All day he cuts hair, a little here,
more there, massages the scalp a bit, a splash
of cologne to go—our lives hang on thin strands of hair.

We’re not city people, though we’re living in one.
We miss our villages’ gold walls, the thousand
colors of blue swirling like music across the sea and sky.

We don’t know opera, but when Luisa Tetrazzini sang
at the corner of Market and Kearney on Christmas Eve
soon after I arrived in America, we joined the throng.

She sang “The Last Rose of Summer,” her white dress
glowing amidst the flood of dark coats and hats.

Clear, pure, her voice floated and danced on wings
above all two hundred fifty thousand of us standing in the crowd
that December night, clinging to its flame.

It lifted us from the bare dirt floors of our past, the longing
for the worlds we’d left behind, and let us believe
that fire and dreams are stronger than iron—
have substance equal to earth.

20191210_150926

To those huddled together in San Francisco’s winter streets that Christmas Eve in 1910, Tetrazzini created a shared experience that unified them with others. In doing so, she enabled them to recognize in the midst of their difficulties they were also part of each other and a shared hope.

We live in a world of growing struggle today as well. People across the continents feel bowed down, bent over with difficulties, and are struggling to right themselves. In Chile recently, opera singer Ayleen Jovita Romero broke curfew to sing into the streets from her window “El derecho de vivir en paz” (“The right to live in peace”) composed by folk singer Víctor Jara, who was murdered in the 1973 military coup by General Augusto Pinochet.

In India the Guardian reports Gandhi’s great grandson, Tushar Gandhi, saying, “”For the first time in independent India…laws or systems are being attempted to be imposed which discriminate, which differentiate, on the basis of religion…There should be a debate on the ramifications of [the CAA] internationally,” says Tushar. “It concerns every democracy and it concerns everybody who believes in inclusivity and in the liberal ideology…“It’s not what you profess, but what you practise that makes the world realise who you follow,” he said of Modi.” Protests in India are being met with increasing violence. Similar to Chile, in India, too, actors, artists and singers have raised their voices to speak against the injustices.

It is not in India or Chile alone, however, that the masses of everyday people are protesting injustices regarding the lack of basic human rights. Across the world from Myanmar to Colombia, current ways the systems we live inside are functioning are creating crises. Though democracies are built around the idea that diverse perspectives have value and need to be heard, and though our current economic systems are built around the exchange of each other’s diverse strengthens, we humans struggle with adapting to change, wrestle with how to communicate effectively across cultural divides, and, in general, fall short of making progress toward loving our neighbors as ourselves or treating them with respect. Finding a way to create social contexts where people are not merely toiling to survive, but can flourish is extremely challenging.

Stepping into a wider view during these troublesome times, it’s worth noting how everything in nature is interdependent on the life around it for survival. To live only unto ourselves and for ourselves is to die. Though we may think we stand on the outside of others’ problems or feel the natural world is ours to use as we wish, we are actually share struggles that arise, as what one person or one country does ripples through the interactions between other countries and their citizens as well, affecting the atmosphere of our social contexts, as well as influencing our relationships to the natural environment.

The words from Moore’s poem, “The Last Rose of Summer,” speak directly to this interconnectedness. “I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one! / To pine on the stem;” writes Moore. How empty and meaningless a world where no friendship is given or exchanged. We need each other, including interactions with the natural world that not only sustain, but regenerate life. As Moore’s poem goes on to say,

When friendships decay,
And from Love’s shining circle
The gems drop away.
When true hearts lie withered,
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?

When our spirits are lifted, our bodies are lifted too. Music can sustain us, can heal. This is something most of us have experienced and intuitively know, but there is also a growing body of researched evidence to demonstrate this. Robin Seaton Jefferson’s recent article in Forbes, NIH Bets $20 Million Music Can Heal Our Brains describes music’s wide range of healing capacity. Our bodies physically benefit from music, as neurologist Alexander Pantelyat from John Hopkins University explains, in this video. Engagement in making music, activates more parts of the brain than just about any other activity,” Pantelyat states.

Imagine yourself standing alongside Luisa in the poem above, newly immigrated to America in the cold December night, or imagine yourself walking the streets of Santiago as Ayleen Jovita Romero sings into the street and you recall your disappeared family members who wanted the right to live in peace, but were instead killed, or imagine yourself a person of Muslim faith standing beside your Hindu neighbors asking for your life to be held in equal value as those you live alongside of in India, and listen here as Diane Syrcle singing the “The Last Rose of Summer” that she recorded for me to be able to share with you.  Perhaps as you listen, you, too, can find yourself in the story of those who have longed for friendship and care to be extended to them, so as to not be left in this bleak world alone.

In the midst of life’s challenging experiences, we need ways to find others’ stories in our own story. Music in its ability to unify both body and spirit, can help us discover a path to walk toward that place of being together.

20191220_100942-1

 

 

art, music, poetry, Uncategorized, writing

The Incense of Fallen Leaves and the Seeds of Music

20190927_143022
Leaves in Nisene Marks forest, Santa Cruz County.

In his poem on the Jerry Jazz Musician site, “Paean for Coltrane,” Michael L. Newell writes,

Trane knew and blew rage
that was prayer prayer that was
rage engaged heart and mind
enveloped listeners in all
that could be
felt or known

in this miserable destructive
alluring astonishing enduring
world that enmeshes all
who pass through
conscious or unconscious
all is carnal spiritual joyous

In a world where words are so often manipulated and used in a way to distort or hide behind, music can move us into a place beyond words that enlarges the heart, becoming a prayer without words. Poetry tries to speak what is true, and to name what can’t be named. When experience becomes to large for words, music can become our poetry. As Newell so aptly describes, certain music in its melding of opposites–the miserable with the astonishing, the carnal and spiritual, the conscious and unconscious–is prayer as it moves beyond what can be articulated, and gives voice to the heart’s deepest suffering, joys, and yearnings.

Bertrand Russell wrote, “To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.” Much of life is about loss, about learning how to let go. It is in this bitter sweet space of letting go into transformation–of not clinging to what is, but of opening our minds, hearts, and arms to all that is passing, that we find meaning. Loss helps us to identify how all we have is gift, and can thus provoke in us an attitude of gratitude and openness that allows our spirits to expand. The boundaries between the known and unknown is the space where struggles occur, and where change and growth unfold. It is the space where stories live, and stories can teach us how to live.

20191111_104843
Japanese maple leaf

Autumn is a season between a world of fruitfulness and emptiness. Today, in an early afternoon amble around my neighborhood, the perfume of the redwood’s fallen leaves lifted from the earth beneath my feet as I walked. Much is dry and fallen at this time of year. The garden has gone to seed. Though the garden isn’t as beautiful as when it’s wearing its lush spring foliage or when offering its summer fruit, the seeds it produces as it lets go its life are beautiful for all the potential stored there, and for the promise of what they will bring. The memory of how to grow is embedded into their very fibre, each seed a storehouse of physically embodied knowledge. They know how to absorb nutrients, how to grow, how to create and recreate.

Some years back, while visiting Italy, I sat on a balcony overlooking Naples Bay at sunset as a boat pulled across the water into a flame of orange and red sky, and disappeared beneath the horizon. I thought then of how like this scene it must have been for  my husband’s immigrant grandparents when they journeyed from Italy to America–the feeling of deep longing and loss, as the shore of their homeland vanished from across sea, and they recognized they were leaving everything they knew for a world they knew little about. What an enormous risk it was. Their decision changed their lives and the future of all the descendants who came after them. From the point of departure, their lives were lived in the space between two worlds–the one they were born into, and the one they adopted in coming to the US. They never again returned to the land of their birth.

The lives of our ancestors are the seeds of our lives. Rising from the loam, the choice they made is the perfume of life now lived as a result that journey they took.

Citrino Naples Bay Cover idea
Naples Bay at sunset. (Photo, Michael Citrino)

Art in general, and music in specific, can bring together body and spirit to create an interior spaciousness where we are more willing to widen the heart’s boundaries.  Art arises at the intersection of loss and the need to find meaning and beauty. Art lives in the borderlands, in the space between where struggles exist. Music educates the heart. When I first heard Après un rêve, by Fauré, sent to me by a colleague I worked with in New Delhi, India, it evoked for me a sense of deep loss and a longing unable to be articulated in words. Immediately, the image of the ship I’d seen leaving Naples Bay and the journey my husband’s grandparents took in their hopes of finding a better world sunset came to mind. Imagining myself into that space sparked questions leading to research and many additional poems. That journey of imagination changed my world. 

Words are written thought. They have no physical weight, yet they can transform lives, can create or destroy worlds. Imagination is a seed. In searching to find, sense, hear, visualize and name the moments that defined and embodied the grandparents’ loss and their immigrant journey–the world they loved and left, as well as the new world they found–an entire world opened that was previously hidden. Whole histories were unveiled that I never before knew. 

Performed by Renata Bratt on cello, and Vlada Moran on piano, and recorded by Lee Ray, Faure’s Après un rêve on the link below is a gift to all–prayer without words. You can listen to the music, then listen again while while reading the poem below, “Luisa Leaves Home,” the initial poem I wrote in the series of poems that eventually unfolded into my newly published book with Boridghera Press, A Space Between. Maybe you will sense how the music inspired the poem, and perhaps it will be for you, too, a seed of some sort that opens for you a world. 

 

Luisa Leaves Home

Footsteps on the hard cobble last twilight—
harsh echoes that clattered through the brain

while I sat at the window, listening
to a child calling “Papa, papa,”
from a window above as his father

wended his way up the steep hill from the sea,
coming home from work.

Wind pushes the walls, and I unlatch
the door to narrow streets, barren hills
sloping abruptly into sea.

It is morning now,
and I am leaving this life’s empty cupboards,

going out of the stony house, the sun’s
lemon heat, the salted fish,

out from the familiar rooms and names, out
of all I know.

Down to the water, light rising
on the last day from the white shoreline
as it greets the ocean’s immensity, I go.

Slowly, the boat pulls from shore,
the hull breaking open the vast
expanse. From the sky’s broken
window, birds cry.

Father, mother, a silent photograph
held in my palm,
I lean forward over the stern,
into the rain,
and cutting wind.

20190731_152503

The ancient Pali text of “The Five Remembrances” says, “All that is dear to me and everyone I love are the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.” The grandparents’ journey of a hundred years ago parallels journeys people of our own time in various locations are taking now at great risk in order to create a better life for those they love and those that will come after them. May we all find the music that carries us into a wide place of being, and may the actions we take create consequences that allow the lives of those who come after us to have greater access to love and fulfillment. 

pilgrimage, poetry, Uncategorized

Journeys to Widen Our Lives

cropped-cropped-cropped-anna-header.jpg
Anna biking the Camino de Santiago de Compestela, Spain

“We do not need to go to the edges of the earth to learn who we are, only the edges of our self.” – L.M. Browning, in Seasons of Contemplation: A Book of Midnight Meditations

Some journeys are external others internal. Pilgrimages are travels we make to places that we feel hold spiritual significance—that will speak to our inner selves and transform us. We might travel to a place where grandparents were born, to a significant site connected to our history or a religion we practice. Pilgrimages connected to poetry attract me. The year I lived in the UK, I wanted to follow the Stanza Stones poetry trail. Located in the Yorkshire moors of England, this 47 mile trail contains six Stanza Stones, poems written by Simon Armitage and carved into stones naturally found in there by Pip Hall. Armitage collaborated with the Ilkley Literature Festival organizers to create the poems for the trail. To walk a landscape is to absorb the land’s language. Arimtage’s poems connect walkers to the landscape with words as they encounter the poems as in these lines from his poem, “Snow,” “What can it mean that colourless water can dream such depth of white?” Though I wanted to walk at least part of this trail, I wasn’t able to find a good way to connect to it without better transport the weekend I had free to visit the area, so let go of the idea of this pilgrimage.

Walking Basho’s poetry trail is another pilgrimage I dream of going on. Following this pilgrimage path, walkers can hike the 17th century trail where the great haiku poet, Basho, traversed through northern Japan’s mountains to the Sea of Japan, passing by Shinto shrines, through pine covered islands, and hot springs along the way. I don’t know if I will be able to get to Japan any time soon to make the journey that inspired many of Basho’s poems. I look at photos of it on the Internet, though, imagining the quiet joy of walking for days beneath bamboo forests and among ancient trees.

 

We’re not always able to make the trek of our dream or travel to another land. Nevertheless, there are pilgrimages available to us all: quests through books, and our journey through time. A favorite journey I’ve been on since 2012 is one of the imagination. This sojourn began when I wanted to collaborate with a colleague I worked with who played the cello beautifully, and who was going to move away at the end of the year. I suggested a collaboration where I would write a poem for a piece of music he chose to play, and we would record the pieces together. The music he selected was Fauré’s, Après un rêve, (Op. 7, No. 1). The piece evoked a sense of loss and longing, transporting me to Naples Bay’s enormous circumference where I’d recently sat with my husband at sunset. As the sky burning gold-orange, we watched a boat pull from shore, heading toward the wide horizon. I thought of his grandparents departing Italy for America—how they left behind the world they knew as well as everything and everyone in their village of San Lucido on Calabria’s coast. They had no pictures of the world they moved to, didn’t speak the language, had little money and likely no maps. They never returned to Italy. Leaving was risky, enormously brave, and they would never be the same. Neither am I, as without their departure, I would’ve never met the man I married.

After writing the first poem, “Luisa Leaves Home,” in response to the music, I wondered many things: Why did they leave Italy? What was life like in San Francisco when they arrived? How well did different ethnic groups get along? What are Italian-Americans contributions to American culture? How did World War II change Italian-Americans? What does it mean to be Italian-American today? What does it mean to be American? Hundreds of questions surfaced, and I searched for answers. Paradoxically, the more I researched and wrote with the aim of unraveling threads from a century ago, the more mysterious and complex the world grew. The more questions I had.

I began listening to news items and other people’s stories with a second ear. I applied situations and information to the immigrants’ lives I was writing about, and reflected on how my experiences connected to their world. After sharing one of the poems with a relative, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “That poem isn’t Noni. I don’t know who you think you’re writing about, but it isn’t my grandmother.” She was right. I never met her grandmother or lived in San Francisco. I didn’t grow up in an Italian American family or neighborhood. Neither do I speak Italian. Any of these qualifications would be beneficial in helping me write about Italian immigrants to America. The Italian grandparents were from a different time period and culture, and had little education. I had no way to access their lives or inner worlds and the family knew few facts. I couldn’t truly write in their authentic voices. Every writer has limitations of gender, culture, and time period, however. I felt drawn to understand and to journey inside Italian immigrants’ world, so I turned to research and imagination, constructing possibilities to embody a story. Research helped me to put the few facts I knew into a larger picture with a wider frame. Imagination created a bridge to a culture, time period, and people that gave me greater awareness of the complexities inside choices immigrants made.

We look in the mirror when we are at six, sixteen, or sixty. All that came in the years before is mostly hidden from view, disappeared, but still present beneath the surface, creating the life we see and experience. There are myriad stories inside one story. We’re many selves inside one body. It’s the same with cities. Years back I read Italo Calvino’s book, Invisible Cities, where Marco Polo describes to Kubla Khan various cities, all of which are actually Venice. I began to see San Francisco in this way as well as I wrote—its subtle elements still present revealing the past or rising from a foundation into a remodeled version. When visiting the City, I recognized places I’d never been because I’d seen them in historical photographs and could recall events that took place there. It isn’t just San Francisco I see differently now as a result of searching for answers to my questions. The world I live in is larger and has greater dimension because of questions I’ve explored answers to. The walk into an unfamiliar world has been a pilgrimage that  widened my perspective and has transformed me.

20180628_152554
San Francisco from Twin Peaks

To step out on a journey into new territory can be unsettling for travelers. Today, people don’t think of Italians as the “other.” During the peak period of Italians immigration to America, however, Italians experienced prejudice. They were seen as lawless, treacherous, and having filthy habits. (See more at this CNN article, “When Italian immigrants were the other.”) Italians weren’t allowed to build a church inside Manhattan because city officials were fearful of Catholicism and the ceremonies they didn’t understand. The largest single lynching in America was of Italians in Louisiana 1891. Teddy Roosevelt, though not yet president, said of the lynching it was “a rather good thing.” The man who helped organize that lynching, John Parker, later became Louisiana’s governor in 1911.

Currently, similar to the time period one hundred years ago in America when Italian immigration to the US was at its peak, Americans’ fear of immigrants is heightened. Openness to new experiences, information and ways of seeing can enrich and expand our lives, and bridges that allow us to build deeper understanding of what is different can be helpful. Mahzarin Banaji co-author of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People and Professor of Social Ethics in the department of psychology at Harvard explains in her interview with Krista Tippett that our minds are basically wired to distinguish differences in order to help us make sense of our world. This wiring creates biases and blind spots we’re not aware of.  Tests created by researchers to help you see your biases at Project Implicit. People can, however, gain understanding of biases and blind spots by exposing themselves to ideas and people that stretch their boundaries of familiarity. Challenges to people’s preconceptions presented in contexts allowing them to continue to feel safe can help people grow in their understanding of others different from themselves.

One terrific way to do this is through reading, as reading allows us to learn from others without having to take personal risks as we step into their lives. Scientific American’s October 23, 2013 issue reports social researcher, Emanuele Castano and PHD candidate’s research evidence showing how literary fiction, delves into characters’ thoughts and interactions. In literary fiction, explains Kidd, “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations.” As a result, readers have to imagine characters’ inner thoughts. This kind of thinking nurtures empathy as it leads readers to understand the complexity in characters’ lives and to reach for why they might do things differently than expected.

20161218_150059

If reading literary fiction helps break down stereotypes and prejudices, enabling readers to develop empathy with those different from themselves, it follows that writing fiction could further expand this capability as authors not only step inside character’s minds, they create their thoughts and build contexts from which they flow. As a writer, you immerse yourself in your characters’ lives, become familiar with their setting, social context and way of seeing so that you can portray their world. You reveal your characters’ weaknesses and blind spots, and come to understand your own as well.

While most people aren’t fiction writers, we’re all creators of our own life stories. We can consciously aim to expand our understanding of new contexts and situations. Simple things like taking a new route home, listening to or playing a different type of music, going to a lecture on an unfamiliar topic, trying a new sport, hobby or food can all help us expand. We can learn a few phrases in a new language, take a class in a unfamiliar subject, learn about plants in our yard or types of architecture in the neighborhood, experiment with art or try building something. When meeting new people, we can ask questions to bring out their experiences or ways of seeing things. These actions may not seem like large leaps for some, nevertheless they can open new paths in our brains to carry us on journeys widening into new vistas of understanding.

Some journeys start before you know they’ve started. I’d written quite a few poems about Italian immigrants experiencing earthquakes, crossing the Atlantic, learning about the largest lynching in America, and Italians being removed from their homes to be taken to internment camps before I realized I was actually on a pilgrimage with them. I’ve made the pilgrimage with them as I could through writing, and the trek has caused me to view my own place in the world with greater humility.

Not every story is ours to tell, but this one called to me and I felt compelled to take the writing journey to tell it. A Space Between to be published by Bordighera Press (date to be determined) describes this journey, and I look forward to sharing it with you. If you want, you can read more about the book here.

cropped-dsc07530.jpg
Riding the Camino de Santiago
Italian-American, poetry, Uncategorized, writing

Worlds Inside of Words

“Quite a few years of life have strengthened my conviction that each and everyone’s existence is deeply tied to that of others: life is not time merely passing by, life is about interactions.” ~Pope Francis

20161224_092752
Market in Catania, Sicily

I’ve been working on writing and revising a manuscript I’ve titled A Space Between, a series of linked narrative poems about southern Italians immigrating to San Francisco at the turn of the previous century. I started this series of poems about four years ago, set them aside for a few years, and have recently returned to them. The writing began as a result of listening to Gabriel Faure’s Apres un Reve (“After a Dream”), sent to me by a colleague I worked with in New Delhi, India who played the cello beautifully. Because I like to write poems in response to music, I suggested he play a piece of music on the cello and I would write a poem to go with it. As I listened to Faure’s piece, I pictured Naples’ wide harbor as I had seen it at sunset on a trip to southern Italy–the sky a brilliant, burning orange with a single boat sailing off into the far horizon. The music embodied feelings of deep tenderness and loss—how I imagine it  felt when my husband’s grandparents left Calabria to sail for America at the turn of the previous century. To lose the ones you love is to lose a world. How enormous the feeling must have been for immigrants as the boat they sailed on pulled away from shore and they realized they might never again walk on the land that shaped them or see once more those they hold dear. This experience of departure is where my manuscript began.

The process of writing A Space Between has been simultaneously like looking through a telescope into a deep space of ever expanding worlds, as well as peering down into a microscope at the fascinating details inside one life, event or moment. After I’d written the first poem, I discovered I had many questions about the Italian immigrant experience, leading me to research for answers. A wide range of writers have helped me developed a sense of life in both Calabria, Italy, and San Francisco, California in the early decades of the last century. Bit by bit, the research expanded both my understanding and my questions, motivating me to write more poems. As I continued to research, read and write, I eventually realized that along with the immigrants who left their country and struggled toward making a life in a new place, I too was on a journey. Now, approximately ninety pages later, I’ve got a completed draft, though I realize there’s much more to understand. My questions and interest in immigrant stories continues.

A Space Between unfolds through a series of narrative poems told from different characters’ perspectives. In creating a world through story or poetry, as in a mosaic, writers, and readers, see how worlds are interconnected— the interior life of characters with the physical world and with the social setting. In creating a narrative, you create a world. Language is a central mode of finding and making meaning. I feel deeply grateful for how writing the story in poems has changed me, not only because of what I learned through what I read, but also for the way the act of writing brings me deeper into the heart of humanity and the worlds we share.

Stories occur in a setting that shapes the narrative. In addition to the physical geography of a location, place is also created by how we name the world we are a part of, and how we use language to talk and write about it. Place is an integration of experience, imagination, thinking, emotion, and the words we give our experience about a place. Employing your imagination to write a story or a narrative poem moves a writer beyond the facts into a felt experience. Through the process of writing, I see ever more clearly how intricately interrelated events and lives are–how worlds live inside of worlds, touching each other in deep and powerful ways, affecting all that comes after. That changes how you think, feel, and respond to the world around you.

We don’t have to be a writer, however, to sense the power of our words. We might begin simply by telling our memories to a friend or child. It’s good to tell our stories as well as to say yes to listening to others’ stories in order to enter into their worlds. I knew little about the Italian American experience of those who came to San Francisco before I began the journey of trying to their stories in poems. Their history wasn’t taught at schools I attended as a child or found in textbooks; neither was it a shared family story. By trying to learn the stories of that era and finding the words that might bring them alive, whole new worlds have opened to me–including having a better understanding of what it might be like for those in our own era whose worlds have fallen apart causing them to leave their homes and all they’ve known to enter strange worlds with hopes for a better life.

In his poem, “Love is a Place,” E. E. Cummings explains this interconnectivity.

Love is a Place

love is a place
& through this place of
love move(with brightness of peace)
all places

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds

Love is the ground we walk on, the atmosphere we breathe, the space we move in. Love is the place we all want to live in. We might read a lot about a subject, travel the world looking at facts and scenes from the windows of our own experience, curious about ways of being that puzzle us. When we enter the arms of one we know loves us, though, we intuitively feel we belong. To say yes to love is to say yes to a deeper place of knowing and belonging. As Pope Francis says, “life is about interactions.” To say yes to love is to recognize relationship is a life source. We sense we’re home. Humans are meant for relationship. Relationships with others, with ourselves, and with the natural world help us find our purpose and express what we find meaningful.

We have the ability to create worlds and places of love with our words. Words are a kind of magic, and are powerful in their ability to heal or to harm. Writers think carefully about what words make the world they want their readers to experience. Similarly, in making a place of love in our lives, we want to be aware of choosing words that evoke the world we want to live in with those around us. The recently reported news story of how two Lebanese twin brothers, Mohamed and Omar Kabbani, created a project called “Operation Salam” is an illustration of this idea of the power of words. Selecting a neighborhood in Tripoli, Lebanon, a previous war zone during Lebanon’s civil war between 1975 and 1990, the brothers painted rooftops a bright lime green so that from above, the word salam, or peace, could be read. The project brought the neighborhood together, as approximately 50 people worked to find places in the neighborhood where the brothers could carry out their painting project. “…The people from both sides want to live peacefully,” explained Mohamed. This single word, salam, literally proclaims from the rooftops this Lebanese neighborhood’s desire for peace. Interestingly, by saying “yes” to their roofs being painted, a larger world of “yes” took place—a kind of healing and making of a world they want to live in. Through the physical embodiment of the word as well as neighbors cooperating with each other where previously sectarian violence had occurred, the artists, with this single word, moved people once enemies further toward living peacefully.

To write about something is to enter a door inviting us into a deeper relationship with our subject and the possibility of falling in love with it. When we are in relationship with someone or something, we are listening for what the other is communicating so we can respond. Several times now, I’ve thought I was finished the manuscript of poems about Calabrian immigrants to San Francisco, but then I learn something more about the immigrant experience or Italians in America, and I want to reconsider what I previously said or thought. Keep listening, the story seems to tell me; there’s more to understand. Around us everywhere are worlds that beckon for us to listen. Inside of words, entire worlds exist. Stories, even a single word we share with another, can open a space for understanding and connection, and writing is a way to enter into a place of love.