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Re-imagning the world

What do you do when you feel stuck in a situation and there’s no way out? A traffic jam, for instance, or a difficult financial situation, a mistake you made in a relationship. Being stuck isn’t just something people find themselves in in every day life, though. Bigger things can be at stake. You could be put on trial for your beliefs, like Galileo was, because the world isn’t yet ready to accept the idea you have to offer–your ideas aren’t in fashion and those in power don’t want to hear it. This has happened to many groups of people through the centuries–women, Jews, Christians, Muslims, immigrants–those on the fringes of society. Recently, I finished reading Luigi Barzini’s The Italians, and Barzini describes how the Italian culture is one that has learned to live with centuries of oppression and corrupt leadership. Revolt wasn’t possible, so the Italian way of dealing with problem through the centuries has been to evade the powerful as much as possible, avoid doing the unusual, and to hide their inner most feelings in order to survive. The one institution that Italians consitantly feel faithful to, Barzini explains, is the family. Outwardly, Italians act friendly toward all, but underneath the surface there is a kind of frustration. They resign themselves to discontentment. Barzini quotes Ignazio Silone who explains that to cope, Italians take to “every known means of escape: they feign exaggerated gaiety, awkwardness, a passion for women, for food, for their country, and, above all, for fine-sounding words; they become, as chance may have it, policemen, monks, terrorists, war heroes. I think that there has never been a race so fundamentally desolate and desperate…” (p. 336)  To make the time under oppressive rulers bearable, Italians did what they could to make life as enjoyable as possible. Barzini suggests that while this appeal to the senses is why many visitors feel attracted to Italy– it is also what makes it difficult for Italy to solve its problems. What appears to give them freedom is also a trap.

Recently, Italy’s sales tax rose from 21% to 22%, a move met with protests by Italian citizens. NBC news reports “Italy’s beleaguered former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is this week facing a major decision: to leave politics or to drag the country’s fragile government down with him. In a chaotic series of events over the weekend, Berlusconi threatened to withdraw his support from the Cabinet — leaving the government hanging by a thread.” When you can’t count on your country’s leaders, and they don’t act in the best interest of the people, it makes sense that citizens turn to their families as the main institution to trust–people trust and protect those they know. It also makes sense to me that people would throw their energy into creative efforts of food and art. These are outlets of creative expression, and creative acts have proven consistently over time to renew our spirits, though it’s true that they may not solve the greater political problems countries might have.

The manuscript I’ve been working on about Italian immigrants from Calabria to America, Finding Home, explores how one Italian family responds to poverty and oppression and uses courage in the everyday acts of their lives to work their way into a different future for themselves and for their family. Illiteracy in southern Italy was as high as 70% in 1900, and most of America’s Italian immigrants at that time were from southern Italy. “As early as 1890, 90 percent of New York City’s public works employees and 99 percent of Chicago’s street workers were Italian. Many Italian immigrant women worked, but almost never as domestic servants.” (Digital History) Perhaps laying roads and digging tunnels for the subway are not what most people would call high level creativity, but working with their hands, hard, physical labor was a way out of poverty for many immigrants. It was a better solution than the fixed life of poverty they were stuck with in their own country. They recreated their futures, as well as ours as Americans, and today American citizens still benefit from their labor.

Physical labor labor can be truly rewarding, you can see the results of your work immediately. Immigrants and workers literally created much of the physical reality we live and work in. They re-imagined a future other than the one they were born into, got on a boat and pursued it, day after day working to make a future they wanted to live in.  Maybe you’ve heard of the value of having a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset, the immigrants clearly had a growth mindset, a way of thinking that is open, flexible, creative, willing to put in long-term serious consistent effort, the kind that gets people somewhere different in the world. Such a mindset takes vision, and purpose. If you haven’t seen this video, Caine’s Arcade, about a young boy who followed his passion making cardboard arcade games and how it changed his life and many others too, you might like to watch it to see the difference our actions can make when we have a dream and a purpose.

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Treasuring the Tangible

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.