pilgrimage, poetry, Uncategorized

Journeys to Widen Our Lives

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.

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.


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.

Riding the Camino de Santiago

Black Mold and Bravery

Black mold has invaded our apartment and is growing in the walls. For days now I’ve not slept well. First workers came and pulled off the tiles in the bathroom to fix the leaky pipe, releasing the reeking smell into the air. They have since tiled the wall back in this week, but the caustic smell is still there. The mold is masked, but continues on inside the wall and is pushing its way through into the living room.

Clearly, the mold had been there for some time, though we didn’t realize it. Red or puffy eyes in the morning, wheezing at night, draining sinuses, rashes on the skin, and yes, even hair loss, which I’ve been noticing for some time now and wondering why it is happening, these (and more) are the signs of reaction to mold, but because we couldn’t see it, we didn’t know the mold was growing behind the walls until the neighbors complained their walls were showing stains.

When the workers broke open the walls they released the toxic smells. Recently, a colleague and I were discussing how we might get better at connecting with people and situations we found difficult in our work. She asked if I had listened to Brene Brown‘s TED talk “The Gift of Imperfection.” I hadn’t, but went home that evening and listened to several of her talks. One of Brown’s statements, out of many that resonate with me is this: “Unused creativity is not benign; it metastasizes. It turns into grief, judgement, sorrow, and shame.” I thought of the mold behind the wall. A pipe behind a wall leaks. You don’t realize it, but the mold begins growing, and eventually you have a problem you can’t fix simply by breaking open the tile, repairing the leak, and then tiling the wall back up. The mold is growing now, and you’ve got to remove it and create something new.

Since the apartment I live in isn’t mine, I don’t get to make the choice about removing the mold growing in the wall or covering it back up with tile, however. The choice of putting something in the wall that kills the mold, or to mask it with clorox instead, isn’t mine. As I lie in the bed at night coughing, I think of the people everywhere who are living with mold or who have lived in oppressive environments.

When the Czech writer and illustrator Peter Sis, came to the American Embassy School here in Delhi several years back, he explained over dinner with a small group of teachers that he is a man without a country. The country he was born into, Czechoslovakia, no longer exists. Those words have echoed in my mind ever since. It took Odysseus 10 years to make it back home after the Trojan wars. That is a long time, but some people can never return home because there is no home to return to. There is suffering in situations like these. Once you are gone a decade from your home, you are changed. You might return home, but you won’t necessarily every be at home again as the world of home, like a ship under sail, continues on its own trajectory while you have been sailing along a different route encountering land and storms not like those you might have experienced had you stayed on the ship you began on. All seas are not the same.

When some people leave home, they don’t want to return, however. My husband’s grandparents came from Italy, but when asked if he would like to go on a trip with us to visit Italy, his father expressed absolutely no interest in it. “Why would I want to go there?” was his response. That was the end of the conversation. As someone who loves travel, is curious about the world, and wants to understand the roots I’m connected to, that statement perplexed me. Currently, I’m reading Milan Kundera‘s book of essays, Encounter.  In his essay, “Exile as Liberation According to Vera Linhartova,” Kundera quotes her saying, “The writer is above all a free person, and the obligation to preserve his independence against all constraints comes before any other consideration. And I mean not only the insane constraints imposed by an abusive political power, but the restrictions–all the harder to evade because they are well-intentioned–that cite a sense of duty to one’s country.” People have fled their countries because of war, have been exiled for their ideas or their writing. But some people don’t chose to return because greater than a bond to history or language, is the person’s desire to choose his or her own path, one that has given them what they sense to be a greater freedom, freedom they wouldn’t have if they returned to the world their history is rooted in. France allowed Linhartova’s creative freedom. Freedom is connected to struggle.

My husband’s grandparents gave up their lives in Italy, and struggled under great difficulty to make a life in the United States. Similar to Linhartova, remaining outside the country of their birth was a choice. The struggle to make a life in another country and culture allowed their children and grandchildren greater opportunity and freedom. Standing between two worlds, they found a home outside of the definitions of home they knew. They lived on the edge of great challenges and risk. Brene Brown says in her interview with Krista Tippett “The Courage to Be Vulnerable”  on Tippett’s site On Being, “The …beautiful thing I look back on in my life is coming out from underneath things I didn’t know I could come out from underneath…the moments that made me, were moments of struggle.” Our family’s Italian grandparents, like immigrants in general, were brave. Their stories aren’t without loss and grief, but they they followed the path that called to them, and today, without ever having met them, I feel gratitude for the daring their lives demonstrated in giving up the world they knew in exchange for a life still full of difficulty, but one lived with hope and a sense of possibility.

Living here in India, I constantly see people struggling for survival. I want the people I encounter to know they will get to eat every day, to be able to go to school, to realize they have stories worth telling and hearing, that their lives have meaning and their creative expression is valuable. But the poor of the world, and those without opportunity are often unseen and ignored. To go to school in Delhi, a child needs a uniform. Some families are too poor to buy the uniforms, and therefore, their children don’t attend school. There is need.

Outside the gates of our school here in Delhi this morning, children who live in the slum across the street waited to be measured for school uniforms that teachers here at our school are raising money to buy for them. Education will give these children opportunity.

John Ciardi, in his poem, “Matins,” writes about a poor woman who died on the streets of Paris,

It froze in Paris last night and a rag doll
that had been a woman too tattered-old to notice
turned up stiff on a bench. So the police,
who spend least on the living, paid to haul
nothing to nothing. She could have lived for a week
on what the bureau will spend on paper work;

The poem goes on to describe how more was spent on the woman after she died than it might have taken to help her live, and find how to give her a place in the world. Ciardi’s poem closes with these words:

…Every child
risked from love and held must be put down
to walk itself away, and turn by turn
become another. This dirty doll unheld
by any arm is one altar piece
from which mad Francis learned to be a priest.

It takes courage to notice the things in our lives and our world that aren’t going so well, that are like the mold growing behind the wall, and to move out into a life of challenge, but the possibility of greater freedom. If we continue to ignore those things that are eating away at us, however, or don’t give creative expression to it when it’s not in our power to change things, eventually the mold breaks through the wall and we’re no longer living in a life engendering place.

Inside the world of discomfort and the wreaking smell of mold, some are brave enough to break open walls and persevere as they reach to find a path with their lives that offers hope and makes a difference. Noticing the poverty around him is what called St. Francis to live his life under the vow of poverty, a life given to empathy and compassion that still touches our lives centuries later. The world could use more people as brave as he.

It is late afternoon and we have returned from the art room where my husband, Michael, holds an adult art afternoon on Sundays where many people (like myself) are exploring art for the first time, learning they can make things they didn’t know they could. Now he’s out in the community garden planting seeds because tonight is the blood moon, a rare lunar eclipse of a super moon, and a good time for planting, he says. It’s an effort, he explains, to make a healthy life for people. “To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly,” Brene Brown states. From organizing the effort to raise the funds for having the children’s uniforms made so they can go to school, to helping people discover ways to be creative, to planting seeds, to preparing this evening’s meal, which he is about to do, my husband is a man who day by day is following St. Francis’s path of giving himself to the world around him. If we are going to change the world, surely it will take each of us being faithful in the small things with those around us daily. As Mother Teresa said, “that is where our strength lies.”