“Nature is the art of God,” wrote Dante, whose tomb is in Ravenna, and to enter the Basilica Sant’Apolinarre Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, built by Theodoric (493-526) is to stand inside a garden and behold some of the world’s oldest and most beautiful mosaics. Walls wrapped with tiny stone chips create a paradise surrounding the viewer in nature’s luminous spring green. The walls lift us into a great meadow of starry skies, awe shining from vertical heights–light lifted into an infinitely rich blue. Viewing these, we can’t help but be changed, transformed by the beauty merely standing in its presence. (You learn more about the mosaics’ meaning here and can see more images of them here.)
Ceiling in Mausoleum of Galla Placidia next to the Church of Santa Croce, inspiration of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”
Apse of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna
Ceiling in Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
Today, far from Ravenna, I walk outside to water the garden, thinking of those walls and how nature, including images of nature in art, can lift the spirits. There is so much in this world that can weigh us down–worries about our jobs, our purpose, finances, health, our relationships or lack of them. Surrounded by these woes and worries, we long for transformation–and we can receive that when go outside and gaze into the face of nature. Dante writes, “Heaven wheels above you displaying her eternal glories, and still your eyes are on the ground.” Outside my door I see the sunflowers planted months back lifting or trying to lift their heavy heads on the long, slender stems. Things can be difficult for them, too, yet their faces gleam gold amidst the sky’s lustrous blue, and I can’t help but be grateful for their presence–the way their color, their height, the wide-eyed faces help me see the world differently.
“i thank You God for most this amazing/day:” writes E.E. Cummings, “for the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything/ which is natural which is infinite which is yes,” and though I feel the weight of the morning’s news weighting my head, I can see, too, that there is a larger world– the trees patiently lifting their arms to the sky, the sky swirled with cloud–the largeness of creation itself. Cummings’ poem, as it continues, also describes this sense of expansiveness.
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
If it happens that you’re sometimes not sure what your purpose is or what value you might have, it’s good to have a few plants nearby that need watering because when you water plants and can know you make a difference. You see you are nurturing something, enabling it to flourish. Gradually, eventually, your plant grows and takes on new leaves. Maybe a flower blooms or the plant bares fruit. When caring for plants you understand how slowly things grow and change, and yet how given time and thoughtful attention, you can bring a little beauty into the world.
Our hearts long to be lifted in difficult times. We may not be able to visit Ravenna. We may not be able to change much in our external events, but the illimitable earth is a gift of love offered every day and it can give us wings. When we practice noticing and naming the gifts, our hearts, our worlds expand.
“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
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.
love is a place & through this place of love move(with brightness of peace)
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.
Most days we move through a world of familiar routines, often with unsurprising outcomes. The past few days I spent time with friends who own a house in Peschio, a tiny village situated above Alvito, Italy, a small community located on the edge of the Comino Valley a couple of hours below Rome in the state of Lazio. In Peschio, traditions still hold sway in people’s everyday lives. Bells ring on the hour, people have close connections with their neighbors and still live where they were born. Neighbors share gifts of food such as handmade pasta. In the evening, people gather for conversation at the local ice cream parlor or sit with friends on benches in the street. The town adorns the roads with ribbons for a celebration of the Madonna, carrying an icon of her through the streets. Here, communities aren’t driven by competition or pressed down with the weight of tasks to complete in a limited period of time. Life here is simple. Houses are not fancy, neither are their clothes. It’s true that the area struggles economically and that the population is aging, yet at the same time people have time to chat on the street or gather for an impromptu dinner on the neighborhood piazza. Human connection remains central to life.
View of Comino Valley, from Peschio village, Lazio, Italy
Neighborhood gathering for pizza on the piazza, Peschio, Italy
Ice cream shop in Alvito, Italy
Homemade pasta, a neighbor’s gift, Peschio village,
Peschio village, Lazio, Italy
Comino Valley from Peschio, Italy
Peschio village, Lazio, Italy
Comino Valley, Lazio, Italy
I feel a connection to those living in a world where tradition is still a vital part of people’s understanding and way of being, but this way of being can’t be mine. I wasn’t raised with traditions that go back to the old world. I have lived in too many worlds with too many other lives, but there is a beauty there. Unlike the world in Alvito, the world most of us live in is filled not with space for human connection, but instead with human competition and the drive to get ahead, make a name, or gain power in some area, even if a narrow one. Minutes count, and finding time to sit outside and enjoy the evening air or to chat with a friend can be challenging. In such a world it is difficult to find satisfaction or wholeness. It’s challenging to find the time to reflect on life, hard to assume an attitude of receptivity instead of needing to act or be in charge, though receptivity is a central attitude that enables us to learn respect for our limitations and to value our interdependence with others, qualities that in turn engender connectivity with others and help us experience life as meaningful.
Occasionally, however, amidst the clatter and squeeze of everyday life that pushes us along from one event to the next, the extraordinary, like a giant fish rising from the sea’s depths or storm wind shaking a tree to its roots, occurs, and we are given a window into our lives that touches us at our roots and helps us see what we are. Having recently read Nicholas Samaras’s book, Hands of the Saddlemaker, I feel I have experienced the extraordinary. Echoes from the poems’ imagery and language move through my mind, rising at unexpected moments, floating up from the subconscious where the poems have been at work. The poems probe the struggle to live purposefully with meaning when traditional values and ways of being no longer hold the world together.
Though we have access to unprecedented volumes of knowledge in our day, to live meaningfully and purposefully, all of us must negotiate between enormous areas of ongoing, continuous and rapid social, economic and technological fluctuation and change. It is no easy task to assimilate ourselves into these various worlds and learn how to integrate them into our lives in a way that allows us to develop wholeness. Each of us must explore how to direct ourselves through the current of these changes. Existentialist theologian Paul Tillich said, “Faith consists in being vitally concerned with that ultimate reality to which I give the symbolical name of God. Whoever reflects earnestly on the meaning of life is on the verge of an act of faith,” and Samaras’s poetry is an exploration of meaning making while swimming in the sea of the postmodern era. The intensely vivid quality of Samaras’s descriptions, language and poetic narratives in Hands of the Saddlemaker pulled me below the surface of words into an interior current flowing between places of exile and belonging, faith, and loss, love and death.
From the opening poem, “Lost,” describing the ease with which a person can lose his or her way, to the final piece, “Decade,” depicting the transformative moment where pain and brokenness from a relationship are let go, the poems in this volume traverse the territory between the traditions, beliefs and practices that both bind and open us. The book’s ending poem, “Decade” returns to a place of confrontation with grief and loss that allows one to come to finally release from its hold and come to a place of stasis where healing might begin. Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.” The ground we stand in our era is constantly shifting and most of us don’t have lives that thread us back to origins, place or carefully followed tradition. The poems explore the territory between and beyond borders, tradition and predefined boundaries, stretching into broader realms of experience and emotion where transformation is forged and meaning created amidst brokenness. This is a book of poems that speaks to our time and worthy of careful and repeated readings.
One of the poems in the volume, “Easter in the Cancer Ward” describes the process of coloring and decorating eggs for Easter, while confronting the certainty of death and contemplating the significance of belief in life after death ends. One of the children in the ward with cancer directly states “I’m dying.” Another unexpectedly later asks the poem’s narrator if he believes in Christ and living forever, prompting him to search within in himself for an honest answer. Easter, as we know, is about life after death, but the poem places us in the moment where death lives inside of life and helps us see how the two are connected. The poem ends where the children put the narrator’s hands into the red dye, staining them red, the color of resurrection. The poem’s last line, “and we are laughing,” is especially poignant. Here is an image of life in death, death in life, and the hard territory one walks between the two. The child has led the speaker to touch that place, a world of pain and wonder inseparable from each other.
In his poem about crossing borders, “Passport,” Samaras writes, “In counties of the temporary, we are forever/ accumulating, possessing, leaving behind./ In the end, our hands will finally be empty.” This is an absolutely powerful piece about impermanence. In some sense, we are always standing at a border, the border between today and tomorrow, youth and age, innocence and experience. The border is a place of transformation–leaving a country, possessions, or a life. We exchange one way of being for another, one life for another. “I cannot help but be a citizen of transience,” writes Samaras, “always looking for the land beyond language.” Forever life is changing and we are leaving behind what we were, “our pale winter/ breaths losing the shape of our bodies.” There is death, but there is also the possibility of entering “the land beyond language,” a place where presence moves beyond the clothes we carry or the language our tongues wear, or any particular belonging, and we are “fresh and farthingless[ly]” ourselves.
Earlier this summer while walking in downtown Santa Cruz, California, I walked past a street preacher standing on his soap box calling out to passers by telling them they were sinners and to come to Jesus. While it’s true that we are all incomplete and need renewal daily, the word sin, is hardly in anyone’s vocabulary these days. I found the soapbox preacher’s tone disturbing. It didn’t compel me to examine my life. Instead, I wanted to push him away. I don’t like anyone yelling at me.
Religion today is bound up in politics, is full of lines drawn on many sides defining right from wrong. What may have once been clear divisions of morality has been manipulated by motivations of profit, of revenge and the love of control, often confusing our understanding of what is really being said so that it’s difficult to know and act on the truth, even as we understand it. While some people are certain they know what is right (as I suspect the street preacher did because of his tone) in this world–the correct beliefs and actions, or at least want to convince us that they do, Samaras’a poetry presents a different vision of belief in the Divine. “In the Shell of a City Cathedral” two men enter an abandoned NY city cathedral that is condemned and scheduled to be torn down, paralleling what is in fact a reality in Christianity today, where the church is being blotted out in its geographical place of origin (see William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain) and where the church has lost respect in the general population as a result of misconduct by priests, attitudes of bigotry, injustice, and through other acts contrary to the teaching of Christ who called people to love their neighbor. Even though the church in Samaras’s “In the Shell of a City Cathedral” is boarded up, abandoned, and set for destruction, though the homeless are lined up and sleeping outside it, the two men intuitively recognize there something inside the vestiges of its structure that nevertheless still offers refuge. “There is nothing worse than a safe life,” writes Samaras, and the faith demonstrated in this poem is not one of safety. The world inside the cathedral is broken. Wires and tubes twist across the floor, the staircase is dilapidated, and the roof opens to the sky and moon. What was once sacred is strewn together with the profane. The two men find it disturbing that “such a building, such a solidity can fall to man’s priorities.” The church’s broken state reflects our human inability to discern what is holy or pure. Svetozar, one of the two men, steps on a nail that pierces his foot. Similar to this unexpected wounding in a place once sacred but now desecrated, innocents across the world have been harmed in the darkness of wars that have changed lives forever, and in particular since the World Wars. Like the homeless sleeping outside the church walls, we are all in some sense homeless now, without belief and holding a general societal disregard or nonchalance regarding injustices. Ignore the nail that has pierced the foot, however, and we die.
Why enter the cathedral? Why call on faith in a time when to believe in God is to many an absurdity? “We climb to resist/ ourselves in a complacent country,” writes Samaras. “To enter this cathedral/ this edifice was necessary.” Faith isn’t arrogance or a person calling from a soapbox on a city street. It is the climb in a church of uncertain structure to
…a level footing, an icon
and a dusty mirror.
All through palpable darkness, the ginger
feeling for where the foot should go next,
the leaning the weight into it.
Here is humility. Here is a spirituality that connects to the suffering of humanity in the dark places of difficulty and pain. Here is where Samaras brings us to at the end of the poem, “wind filters throughout clothes. For a moment, I thought/ I heard the connected lives of others.” The speaker is holding the memory of one’s own hands wrapped around the broken bannister’s weight. The Christian ritual of communion and bread breaking represents Jesus’s self broken, like the bread, and the shared selfless giving with the community of humanity. Yes the church is broken, like all human institutions. But there is also the church that is still what a church is meant to be–God living through people on earth; Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Teresa of Avila, Oscar Romero, Parker Palmer, and the myriad of every day people who do the work in the world and in themselves that creates wholeness. Faith is more than a set of beliefs. As Kierkegaard says, “It is so hard to believe because it is so hard to obey.” The poem shows us those who take the risk and enter in can learn spiritual truths that remain beneath and inside the brokenness and with it, we can find strength to change our lives.
Perhaps I feel drawn to the poems in Hands of the Saddlemaker because inside the poems I hear a voice that tells me there are no easy answers. Several of the poems in the book deal with the hard work of reconciliation. We are all living in some form of exile and we must work out our own salvation. Having lived in other countries outside my own for 25 years, I feel an affinity for the voices of those living outside the boundaries of what might have once been home. I am from the borderlands. My parents moved to California from South Dakota and I was the first in my family to be born there. SanDiego County bordering Mexico was my childhood home. For me, everywhere and nowhere is home. I’m reminded of the old gospel song, “This World is Not My Home” (and here is a bluegrass version.) Though I live in one world, I am of another world too.
Woven through this volume of poems is the sense that the writing is born from a distinct, even painful awareness of the incompleteness of one’s own life, and the willingness to confront it honestly in order to cut through to the marrow of bone where the soul is laid bare and offered up on an altar like a prayer. I think of the Rembrandt painting I saw this summer in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, of Abraham offering up Isaac and the angel holding back Abraham’s hand. The story and painting is a metaphor for what powerful art and writing is. It functions as a sacred offering. In the act of making and reading poetry and art we can be saved, so to speak, through the power of art and words to restore.
It was 3:00 am at the border as I reentered India last night, serendipitously, just like the line in Samaras’s poem, “Passport” where he says “It is always three am at the border.” I had my bag with my yearly supply of vitamins, my clothes, my journal. Men pushed a long line of luggage carts, some leaned against a wall, listless with the weight of waiting. My shoes are old and wearing through the bottoms, but again I begin. Beyond the airport doors waited the city’s broken walls, the millions who sleep on the street. Tired, without sleep, aware of the world I left behind, the world I was about to step into, I left the airport’s bright lights and glossy tiles and rode out into India. There are so many brave people living on India’s streets, each day not knowing where or how their food will come, how they will meet with illness or loss. Continuously, I am reminded here of the need to step beyond my own lack of faith, to be brave–to better understand the need around me and to listen for the voices that help me understand and how to serve out of my own depths the world around me.
The poems in the volume embody faith in periods of grief and loss, a willingness to bear that loss in order to find a way through it. I learn from the poetry in this book, and am changed. Samaras’s poems are more than descriptive words with an insightful message. They have soul. The poems in the book speak to each other in a way other poetry books I’ve read do not. The poems echo off and weave back into each other. They breathe together, become more than they were individually. These are poems whose words hold integrity, life and spirit. They help us find how to bear the hard things of this world. By example, they demonstrate poetry’s power to show us our humanity and bring us back to ourselves. Reading the poems in Nicholas Samaras’s Hands of the Saddlemaker calls me to live more deeply, to feel gratitude for the many small joys of our existence. There is a humility present in the spirit that comes through the writing at the same time that the writing demonstrates mastery and beauty. Such writing is rare, and to read it is a wonderful gift.
Abril venia, lleno
todo de flores amarillas
amarillo el arroyo
amarillo el vallado, la colina,
el sementario de los ninos
el huerto aquel donde el amor vivia.
El sol unjia de amarillo el mundo,
con sus luces caidas;
!ay, por los lirios aureos, el agua de oro, tibia;
las amarillas mariposa
sobre las rosas amarillas!
Guirnaldas amarillas escalaban
los arboles; el dia
era una gracia perfumada de oro
en un dorado despertar de vida.
Entre los huesos de los muertos,
abria Dios sus manos amarillas.
I’ve loved this poem by Jimenez since the moment I first read it several years back. I love the rhythm and the way Jimenez uses repetition. I love how the sound of the poem read in Spanish so perfectly complements the ideas. It is fully beautiful; beautiful like spring.
Bee on flower, Delhi
Butterfly and yellow garden, Delhi
YELLOW SPRING Juan Ramon Jimenez
April came, all
filled with yellow flowers.
Yellow the stream,
yellow the fence, the hill,
the children’s cemetery
the orchard where once love bloomed.
The sun anointed the world yellow in its fallen light; Oh! for the haloed irises, the gold-lit water, warm; the yellow butterflies over the yellow roses! Yellow garlands scale the trees; the day is a grace perfumed with gold, in a golden awakening of life. Between the bones of the dead, God opens his hands of yellow.
Yellow wasn’t my favorite color growing up, though it was my younger sister’s. She looked terrific in yellow, wore it often, and her room was yellow as well. Yellow was a nice enough color, but somehow too bright, too loud like brass horns. Over the years, however, I’ve come to appreciate the color yellow. When you see wide fields of sunflowers blanketing rolling hills in Italy, holding their golden faces to the summer sun, their beauty and the way they lift the heart can’t be denied. Similarly, when walking down Sorrento’s streets with gold and ochre painted buildings sitting above the sea, and lemon groves growing on the hills, the lovely tablecloths and ceramics with lemon designs displayed in shops along with Sorrento’s appreciation of limoncello, it’s easy to grow an affection for the color yellow.
Because I’m currently writing poems about food, I’m also exploring some of their history and stories and the lemon has an interesting history. I grew up associating the fruit with California, as it is a citrus, and California is noted for its citrus groves that date back to the 1840’s in Los Angeles area, though citrus fruits were first brought to California by Spanish missionaries in the 1700s. The word is of Persian origin, limun, and entered English through Old French, limon, related to the Italian limone. My parents had a lemon tree growing at our house when I was a child, along with a grove of orange trees.
I also associate lemons with the Mediterranean because of the fairly warm climate there. Its origins are further east, however. Though its exact origins are a bit unclear, they are thought to be India, the country where I currently spend most of my year, in the Assam region near the Chinese border. Over time, the fruit made its way into Persia and then on to the Mediterranean, carried by Arab traders into the Middle East, North Africa, and then southern Italy before entering the rest of Europe during the time of the Crusades . At first, the lemon was used as an ornamental plan as well as medicinally. Currently, according to the New World Encyclopedia, Italy and the US are the world’s leading lemon producers.
My husband’s grandmother drank a glass of lemon juice with water in the morning to aid digestion. The fruit’s juice has antibacterial qualities, and is thought to be good for the skin. It also tastes incredibly delicious in homemade lemon pasta (see a recipe here) that I’ve made together with my husband. If you happen to be in Rome, aim to try eating the lemon pasta at Vladimiro Ristorante, Marcello, 39 06481 94 67 Via Aurora 37 (Via Veneto), 00187 Rome, Italy. The sauce of rich cream with lemon is truly memorable.
In addition to all mentioned previously, Citrino is my surname, which I believe means yellow like the stone, citrine. Possibly the surname means citrus, though, too, as the origin of the English word citrus is Latin and refers to the citron tree, and the citron tree has a fascinating history. You might be most familiar with the citron fruit as part of fruitcake you’ve eaten. The LA Times writer, Jeff Spurrier, explains in his article, “Growing the etrog citron, A tree full of symbolism” that the “etrog citron (Citrus medica) is a fruit with thousands of years of human use.” Originally also from India’s Assam region, the citron is a separate species from the lemon according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Helena Atlee in her book, The Land Where Lemons Grow: the Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit, explains how the citron fruit is used in the Jewish observance of Sukkot and is one the oldest of cultivated citrus trees. According to Spirrier’s article mentioned above in the LA Times, archeologist found the citron’s seeds in Mesopotamia dating back 8,000 years. The citron may even have been the fruit referred to in the story of the garden of Eden, not the apple! A thorny tree, the citron grown in Italy is from the region between Tortora and Diamante, an area that is even referred to as the “Citron Riviera.” You can read more about this plant and its history here, and even more here with a detailed horticultural origin analysis if you’re curious.
Especially noted for its wonderful scent, Atlee, in her book, The Land Where Lemons Grow, describes her attempt to make a broth with the citron following Apicus’s ancient recipe. Not willing to sacrifice the entire fruit to the broth, she cut off the fruit’s tip and suddenly, she noticed the air was “drenched with perfume. By cutting the rind I had released essential oils from the pores just beneath its surface, and the smell of violets that comes from a citron’s outer skin had been replaced by a scent reminiscent of crushed geranium leaves in the sun, mixed as ever, with warm but indefinable spices.” Reading that description made me want to travel to find the fruit just so I could smell it!
Though the tree is too bushy to provide shade, though its is wood brittle and not good for building or adequate for burning, though its fruit isn’t particularly pleasant to eat, and though it fails at possessing qualities for most any practical use, it does have something nearly miraculous going for it, Atlee explains. It produces its huge globes of fruit at the same time it bears “a full cargo of beautiful flowers.” Not only that, wood, flowers and fruit, in essence, the whole of the tree is perfumed, and the fruit seems to never decay–all qualities giving it interest and respect from ancient people.”(The Land Where Lemons Grow) According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, citron was the first citrus fruit cultivated in the West.
Another type of citron with additional unique qualities is the Buddha’s Hand citron which has multiple finger-like sections, somewhat resembling a flower. The fruit appears in paintings on India’s Ajanta cave walls. It, too, isn’t a fruit with much to offer regarding taste, though some research supports its medicinal benefits demonstrate it contains anti-cancerous, and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as possibilities to slow the development of both Alzheimer’s and diabetes. (See more here.) Though fussy about its conditions, the citron is a unique food with a fascinating history and I will have to search out finding one. Luckily, I’ve discovered someone in my county is growing them and they are for sale at Santa Cruz County farmers’ markets!
I am grateful to those who first carried the seeds for these fruits to their homelands in the Middle East, and the gifts they have been to so many for so many centuries. The interconnections between India, Italy and California in the history of lemons and citrons, are surprising and wonderful to learn. The discovery makes me curious about what other ways our lives are connected beyond the boundaries of what we know or understand.
A trip this week to Hikkaduwa beach in Sri Lanka got me wondering about how places we travel to change us. Some trips I’ve gone on I thought I would return from changed, that my eyes would be opened to some newer, deeper understanding of life, but that didn’t actually happen. Other travel, however, has left an indelible impression on me–such as the trip to southern Italy to visit the towns of San Lucido and Amantea and walk the streets where my husband’s grandparents came from, or the summer I spent in Guatemala helping with relief efforts after an earthquake, also my first trip to India when I saw the way people lived a life so different from my own, and how difficult life was for so many. After visiting Sri Lanka this week, I’m left feeling deeply grateful for the places on earth where greenery and beauty are still in tact, where people can breathe deeply and the air is pure, for places where people can restore themselves. Hikkaduwa beach is such a place.
Maybe we should be able to transform our minds and way of being without visiting other lands or worlds, but travel can boost our potential to do that as it places us in entirely different realities operating under different rules and understandings. Walking around in such a world for even a few days can help us to see things don’t necessarily have to be how they currently are. Old patterns can be broken. Something new can emerge. What we perceive as fixed boundaries defining the way the world is or functions, we discover when traveling, is actually a social construct that people collectively build and uphold, and that can change. Whatever the actual cause–whether it is simply time away, or new connections made as a result of being as totally new environment, what seemed impossible before travel to a different location often seems doable after travel.
Over the years of living and working abroad, I’ve been able to travel many places, and doing so has given me a clearer picture of the world. Unlike a few decades ago, nowadays, of course, a person with Internet access can simply look up an area of interest and view absolutely wonderful images. The mosaics in Ravenna, I learned after reading in William Dalrymple’s book, From the Holy Mountain, together with those in the cathedral in Trastevere in Rome, are Europe’s best examples of Byzantine mosaics outside of Istanbul. Traveling to Ravenna isn’t currently possible for me, however, but the online 360 degree view of some of these mosaics online at this site is truly stunning, and it’s fantastic to be able to see them. Then there are the videos of locations, like those on this site of Ravenna, that you can also explore.
Mini mind breaks that take us vicariously to other locations are not an adequate comparison to the kind of transformation that can occur from visiting a place in person, however. Traveling in person allows you to meet people, make connections, learn about history in context, find yourself in new contexts and situations, and to experience first hand the subtleties of a world built on different foundations. In the world today when so many are afraid of differences, it seems much good could come if people were able to travel often so that they could experience the contexts and causes that create various world views and realities. Perhaps we would find ourselves better able to listen to and understand those different from ourselves, and empathy between people would grow.
Hikkaduwa home, Sri Lanka
On the other hand, the environmental state of the planet is a growing concern, and airline travel contributes to the unhealthy state of the environment, raising the question of when travel is justifiable. If we are traveling merely for pleasure, is the expenditure of fuel justifiable? When we arrive at the new location, does what we do there add to other’s lives in a positive, constructive way? It’s true that tourism is important to the economy of many places, but our current economic systems aren’t sustainable. If we care about the places we go to visit, and I do think that when we visit new places we generally have a greater affinity for them, how are we giving back something to these places as a result of our travel? How are we are connecting with a place in a way that sustains it, as opposed to using it as a consumer–taking away from it what we can, and moving on to the next location? These are questions I’ve thought about for some time now.
A few alternative travel options people can try are opportunities like snorkeling with whale sharks in the Seychelles where a portion of the money you spend helps contribute to research and tagging efforts. Having done this previously, I can say it’s a fabulous experience–you have a close encounter with one of the most amazing animals on the planet, and you contributing to efforts to understand them better. If you want to read someone else’s blog post about this activity, see here. If you’re interested in places you can connect with to snorkel or dive with whale sharks, see here. Additionally, travelers can visit places like Ravenna and take a workshop where you learn to make a mosaic. The Shaw guides to art, writing, and other cultural workshops as well, lists thousands of learning travel opportunities around the world. An alternative option is travel where you can contribute to social efforts like helping to build houses with Tabitha Cambodia, something I’ve also done on several occasions and found a moving and valuable experience. All these reasons for travel are ways a person can either learn or give something back while traveling.
Still, just being in a new environment can broaden us, a bike ride through the mountains, for example, can help us understand the world in new ways. Sometimes a person just wants to see the art in France because of a love for art. Maybe others want to visit Eastern Europe to get a better sense of history there. Some people may want to climb Mt. Olympus because they loved their high school world history class and it would be a dream to visit the location in person. There are many reasons for desiring to travel and there are no simple guidelines for what are the right reasons to do it, but maybe one consideration to nurture could be how we might use our travel experiences to in someway give back to the world or enhance our relationship with others.
Twilight, Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka
This weekend when I put on my snorkel and stuck my head underwater and saw the thousands of fish swirling about in the shallow pool just off shore, the eels poking their heads out of the rock, the lion fish with their striped fins floating next to the coral wall, and the juvenile emperor angel fish dancing about their tiny holes wearing their fancy blue, white and black patterns, I was filled with joy. It was, after all, Thanksgiving weekend in America, and I felt fully alive and grateful for the earth’s abundance, for the life given me to experience such beauty. I don’t know if one person’s experience of beauty can ripple out to others in a way that helps to restore lives, but more and more, I’m convinced of beauty’s importance for our lives. From Ravenna to the fish floating in Hikkaduwa’s beaches, could it be possible that if more people experienced nature’s beauty, maybe more would want to cherish and protect it and fewer would be willing to trade it away for economic gain? I’m encouraged by Mary Oliver’s poem in Swan: Poems and Prose.
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
I love the character of this particular tree that I have drawn. It is inspired from a photo (p. 150) in Giorgio Locatelli’s cookbook about Sicilian cooking, Made in Sicily. The ancient olive trees in Sicily, Locatelli says, are called Saracens. This tree reminds me of of the ancient olive I saw at Delphi, Greece, about eight years ago. Its trunk was so large it may possibly have been a thousand years old–or at least that’s what it seemed like when I saw it.
Ancient olives have such character in their forms. I wonder, if the trees could talk, what might they say? In the Middle East and the Mediterranean, olive trees are a symbol of life because traditionally they were the source of fuel used for light also for cooking, as well as in ceremonies.
Olives are one of my favorite foods, and their oils can be quite distinctive. Recently, a friend brought my husband and I a bottle of olive oil from his area in Alvito, Italy, a few hours south of Rome. The oil was golden in color, light in flavor, and had a wonderfully surprising floral after taste. Olive oils vary according to climate, soils, and the way they are produced.
Olive trees with their silvery leaves, great trunks, and ability to survive through periods of serious changes in weather or lack of water, are trees that truly age beautifully. Take care of them, and they will continue to produce fruit for perhaps millennia. That’s down right amazing.
I hope I can become as beautiful as such a tree when I become ancient.
For over a year now, I’ve been working on a poetry manuscript, Finding Home, about Italian immigrants from Calabria in southern Italy to San Francisco early in the last century. The research I’ve done while writing the poems has opened up whole new worlds, and deepened my understanding of Italy and Italians. When many of us think of Italy, we think of the beautiful countryside and the fantastic food, of art, rich traditions and frank, open-hearted animated people who understand that relationships matter, and who value family connections. While these qualities are in general true, the book I’m currently reading by Luigi Barzini, The Italians, draws a more complex picture of Italian character.
“This obvious predilection of the Italians for the solid, the all-too-humman, the comprehensible, the pleasurable; this constant suspicion of the honorable, the unworldly, the chivalrous, and the noble; this persistent fear of emotional traps; this concentration on private interests and disregard for public welfare; this certainty that all things no matter how alluring, will end up badly, all these have been constant characteristics of Italian life since time immemorial. They are ancient mental precautions and expedients, unconsciously accepted by almost all, developed by the people in order to get through life unscathed.” (p. 170, Barzini,The Italians)
The preference for what is tangible, stable, and for what can be understood through the senses, is something that appeals to me as someone who writes poetry, because the way a poet describes the world is through the felt experiences of physical reality–through the senses. The sensory world is the tangible expression of spiritual reality. While doing research, I came across this fabulous description on Mozzarella Mama’s blog depicting just how much the the physical world can embody a deeper expression of relationship and love for an Italian. The writer, Trisha, an American woman working and living in Italy, slips into the church in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, an old neighborhood in Rome, on a hot August afternoon, and finds herself listening in on a funeral ceremony where a middle-aged man is giving the eulogy for his mother. In Trisha’s words,
“With a tremendous sigh he put a couple sheets of paper down in front of him, adjusted the microphone and said, roughly from my memory: “Melanzane parmigiane, Ravioli con ricotta, stracchino e gorgonzola, Fiori di zucca ripieni di tagliolini al limone, these are just a few of the divine dishes mother prepared for us. These are the specialties into which she poured her love into and served to us. And now she is gone.” I gasped. Food. Love. Loss. It was devastating. I looked around at all the people dressed in black gently wiping away the tears with kleenexes. And then it came over me, the SAD WAVE. I felt it starting in my stomach working its way up to get a grip on my heart and into my brain. Just before the tears could come sliding down my cheeks, I jumped up and left the church. The August heat in the piazza was fierce, but it brought me back to my senses. “Trisha, you were about to start crying over the lost chance to eat that kind lady’s melanzane parmigiane.” (Mozzarella Mamma, “Dressed in Black”)
I’m still trying to grasp more of the particular quality of what Barzini means when he describes the Italian’s propensity for suspicion of the unworldly and the honorable, and the belief that things are bound to end up badly. But as the anecdote above so aptly describes, Italy is a country where food is not only precious, but more or less counted as a sacrament of daily life. It seems to me, most of us could learn a lot from seeing not just food, but the whole of the physical world around us in such terms, and by considering the effort of people in our families and throughout the world have given to make possible the every day items used in our homes. The effort and hard work of the world adds to, assists, and perhaps even enables our own contribution. Maybe if more of us purposely and frequently take notice of the way the physical world offers itself to us, how it reaches out to nurture and restore, we will experience ourselves in a deeper, more meaningful and felt relationship to the world and to life.
“As long as you don’t lose your mind, all outer strife is inconsequential.” Teresa of Avila
One advantage of having a broken wrist and bronchitis at the same time is that since you know you can’t do much, you can more easily accept that you will be taking the days slowly. You can give yourself over to your body’s natural rhythms, rising with the sun’s blossoming light, and waiting until after the fireflies begin to blink in the meadow before going to bed. Meals and the after dinner walk down the driveway are focal points of the day. This all seems fairly good. You tell yourself you are learning to live with a different rhythm and not to worry about accomplishing things. Here at the farm cottage outside of Assisi, I wake each day to an enormous oak that expands its arms across the meadow. Its work as a tree is to sink down roots and grow. Little by little. It takes all the time it needs to become what it is meant to become and is not worried about getting anywhere fast. The birds sing their songs above its head, the sun shines in the grassy field where the tree sits. Shadows rise and fall across its face but the oak simply continues to do what oak trees do, lift its arms and breathe. Somehow, I think it’s easier for a tree to go slowly and live deliberately than it is for a person, but I’m practicing.
Two days ago when I had to go to the hospital for a follow-up X-ray of my fractured wrist, I was curious about whether the idea of slow living would extend to the world of medicine or not. The answer is yes. People at the hospital both here in Assisi where I got the X-ray, and at Perugia where the doctors read the X-ray were cordial and helpful, but it all took a long time–most the day, in fact. First there was paperwork and then waiting to do, and then more paperwork and more waiting. No one seemed in any particular hurry to get the X- ray copy done quickly. It would be ready whenever it would be ready, and it was assumed you could wait. This portion alone took an hour. Then we were sent to the cashier where we waited in line again, after which we then had to go to another city for a doctor to read the X-ray. The hospital facilities looked significantly better, however, than the hospitals in the south. The World Health Organization rates Italy’s health care as very good. Is it better to go to doctors who don’t seem pressed for time, who work at a slower pace? Maybe this would enable them to make more considered decisions. On the other hand, maybe they are less motivated to do a good job because their reputation is not as important in a system where the government pays you the same amount of money regardless of how many patients you see or the quality of your reputation. I don’t think I have enough information to make that judgment. I am using the health care my workplace in New Delhi has provided me in order to receive help, but I am also very thankful I could go to a hospital and get help here. So many people tout the advantages of slow living as a less stressful way of life, making us healthier in general. It leads me to wonder what people from the medical profession would have to say about “slow” medicine? What would their definition of it be and would they advocate for it?
Illness is a place, a world of its own. Its borders aren’t always clearly marked, but you know when you are there. The world of illness functions by different rules and works at a different pace. It’s a fuzzy sort of place where things appear slightly out of focus but you are too tired to care. You think more slowly, and odd activities that you normally wouldn’t do seem strangely attractive to you, like sleeping most the day, or drinking liters of water or juice. Strangers ask how you feel and offer to help you that normally would never occur to them. But that’s the point. You aren’t in your normal world. You are experiencing the world of illness, and though that world is rather limiting, the limitations are all for a greater good–to help you become whole again. Now that I’ve had the cast on my arm for more than a week, I can say that I have some idea of what it would be like to have an exoskeleton. There might be some advantages to an exoskeleton, such as not getting sunburned easily, and you can prop your arm on the edge of a table and pivot it up and down without pinching your skin, but I can report unequivocally that I still prefer the bones under the skin. Though illness has a way of distorting and changing reality, it also has a way of retuning reality so that you can see more of what really matters most to you.
Admittedly, there have been times in the last week when everything felt like it was moving all too slowly and I might have termed my experience as confining, not merely slow. I was stuck inside for lack of being able to breathe well when in my mind I wanted to go on long walks and explore the world. All year while living in Delhi I’ve been thinking of how narrow my life is–all lived within a radius of a few hundred yards for months on end. Sometimes I think of those people who sit in toll booths on the freeway, and wonder how they bear it. How do they feel day after day doing the same thing? How do they make meaning in their lives when so many hours a day are spent doing something routine and mindless? I’ve been longing for a change of scenery and for space, for new images, and here I am in Italy, a definite change, and yet, as a result of being ill, I’ve spent a lot of time sitting around in the same space. I could stay at home in California and enjoy the scenery of my yard there immensely. I did not have to come to Italy for that.
Or did I? I don’t know whether it’s a result of being ill and seeing things differently or if it is a result of enough trips to Italy now that I understand it on a different level, or if it because I have slowed my life down enough that I finally see what it is I really want, but what I see clearly now is that where I most want to be is at my home in California. Italy is beautiful, it’s true–the rolling hills of patchwork agriculture across the country, the ancient hilltop cities with their thousand year old churches made of stone. For several years now Michael and I have looked at property in Italy online, and have considered buying. But now I realize that I don’t want to live in a stone house with tiny windows off of a narrow stone street with no raw earth to walk on or ancient trees spreading their arms in my back yard. I need wild places. I need a garden. I need the redwoods. The ancient churches and cities of Italy have their stories to tell, and those stories have added to mine. Sitting here with the window open to the world in this little cottage in the hills where St. Francis walked and worked listening to the breeze rustle the trees and the birds sing, my sweet husband’s hand on my foot as I write, I know where I really want to be is at my home in Soquel.
This doesn’t mean I don’t ever want to travel any more. There are still places I want to see–Croatia, more of Greece, St. Petersburg, Prague, Morocco. And I also know it will take a few more years of living in the narrow situation of life in Delhi before I can afford to return home to CA, unless I can find some way to create an income there. But every life has its confinements, its narrow places that make it what it is. I’ve experienced a lot of ways of living over the past twenty one years of living and traveling in foreign countries but I want to live and make my home in Soquel where we are creating Gratitude Gardens. Look for further progress on the garden over the next few years.
For some time now I’ve been thinking about how to live more slowly. Three days ago we arrived in Cilento National Park, a few hours south of Naples, Italy, and we were eating dinner when Michael noticed how fast I was consuming my food. “Why are you eating so fast?” he asked. “We don’t have to be anywhere.” I realized he had a very good point. It wasn’t like I was on lunch break at school and had to rush off to class in a few minutes. So, I slowed down, deciding to savor the ability to eat slowly.
Now, however, a day later, I am going to learn the lesson of going slowly on a much deeper level as I have fractured my wrist while walking through a lengthy, dark tunnel in the Vallo di Diano. The tour advisor at the agritourismo where we stayed said there would be no water in the tunnel, and gave no indication that we would need a light. Our guide had one dim headlamp, and that made it difficult to see the holes. Though I was doing my best to be careful, my foot slipped on the narrow space between two larger holes filled with water. Down I went. Since I also got bronchitis upon my return from Ladakh and my arm is in a plaster cast, I am most definitely moving slowly.
Currently, we are in Matera, Italy. We did get out to walk around for an hour or so today, mostly, we are resting, though, and don’t have an agenda. I’m happy with that.
Some Examples of Slow Living:
Having no set itinerary for the day. Just step out of the door and follow your intuition.
Try something new on the menu that you’ve never eaten, and stay as long as you want to eat your food.
Take a nap in the afternoon, even a long and leisurely nap.
Walk, and follow the meandering route.
Look for something interesting and draw it, even if you think you don’t know how.