Grazie di Esistere

Grazie di Esistere

This little post is a birthday gift from me, on my birthday, to all of you, my family and friends. Lucky girl that I am, I woke up today to another gorgeous day under the Tuscan sun. When he heard my footsteps on the stairs, sweet Alberto put a song on the CD player to greet me. It's a beautiful song of love for another person with the refrain “grazie di esistere” or, thank you for being here, thank you for existing.

What more simple, wonderful statement of appreciation can there be from one person to another? Thank you for existing. No single reason is needed, but all are implied. Thank you for being here. For being a friend, for bringing happiness, for easing the pain when things are not going well. For kicking me in the ass when I need it. For biting your tongue sometimes and not saying the obvious.

My friend Richard was commenting this week on the devastation in Nepal. Homes and monuments lost. Ancient history and modern lives indiscriminately devoured in seconds. A reminder that every second is precious. That not only are we as individuals just a flicker in time, but whole civilizations come and go with relative speed. The same theme emerged as my friend Mari comes to terms with saying goodbye to her dad. Who will tease her when her car is filthy? Who will drink with her and her sisters? What happens when someone so integral to life is suddenly not there, no longer “exists” in the way we too often take for granted?

So today I say to all of you, grazie di esistere. Thank you for touching my life. For inspiring me and making me laugh. For saying the hard things. For keeping in touch over the years and miles. For so many heartfelt birthday wishes. But mostly just for existing. You make the people in your world that much better by just being there. Stop and savor a minute of your own unique existence. Know that you are loved and that you have made a difference. Grazie di esistere!





Swiffer People? Are You Listening?

“If man is to survive, he will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures. He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life’s exciting variety, not something to fear.”

― Gene Roddenberry

This woman learned long ago that what makes us different makes us interesting. Travel is one of those things that can open our eyes to different ways of thinking and different ways of living. Or not.

It still amazes me that some people pay money to travel…plan trips, take time off of work, pack their bags, drive to the airport, sit on a plane for long periods of time and then proceed to bitch moan and complain about everything that is different where they, presumedly, wanted to go.

Toilets and bathrooms in Italy are one example of something that causes much lamenting. The facilities can range from what Americans might consider normal, to seatless commodes, to literally a porcelain lined hole in the floor with helpful footprints painted on either side so one knows where to stand to make the least mess -to put it delicately.

Some bathrooms, in restaurants and bars especially, are located downstairs in the bowels of the building somewhere behind a curtain or an unmarked door and are so small it is difficult to turn around. Some have shared sinks with toilet stalls and can be disconcerting as you enter the bathroom with a member of the opposite sex.

Most of these buildings are literally ancient and have been retrofitted with so much stone making renovation tricky. And so the sink might be controlled by a foot pedal or simply by a brass button sunk into the floor. Flushing is also often a puzzle to be solved with the actual mechanism not apparently connected to the “toilette.” Soap can be scarce as can toilet paper unless you are in a pay facility which may not be as clean as you would like but is usually adequately stocked.

Read the guidebooks, be prepared with a few supplies and small coins and it’s no big deal. But how many times in the Rome airport waiting to go back to the states have I heard someone complain bitterly that they can not wait to be home to use their own bathroom? Silly me, sitting there with my carry-on packed full of all things Italy, feeling so sad to leave. Reuniting with my toilet seat is definitely not top of mind.

As I write this, my host in Siena is hanging the laundry out to dry. Clothes dryers are rare in homes. Supermarket eggs are not refrigerated. There is a comma in numbers where we put a period. Temperatures are in celcius. Shoes sizes are different and here I don’t wear a medium anything, but usually a large. Air conditioning is not a given, nor is heat during certain times of the year. There is no tipping in restaurants and you can buy a bottle of great wine for a third or less than what it would cost you at home. When a commercial break arrives on Italian TV, there is a note on screen beforehand that a promozione is coming.

If you start to put these differences in mental pro and con columns, you are missing the point. These differences, as Roddenberry wrote, are part of the delight and variety in learning about different cultures.

I wholeheartedly embrace this diversity….with one tiny exception. Italian mops. Now that I’m here for long stays, I happily help out with the daily chores like grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning. After vacuuming the apartment the first time and insisting on washing the floors, I was handed a basin, a cloth and a stiff push broom. Still hopefully looking past Alberto to the supply closet to see at least a sponge mop, he re-directed my attention to the process. Fill the basin with soapy water, dunk the cloth in the water, wring it out, place it on the floor, push it around with the broom. Repeat.

Now that it’s a familiar process, it’s not so bad. I usually shake my head and laugh then launch into a chorus of “this is the way we mop the floor, mop the floor, mop the floor” as I work. But I can’t help wondering if an O’Cedar spin mop is on the TSA list of forbidden items? Or better…Swiffer people, are you listening?


Il Mercado

It’s market day in Siena. Every Wednesday the area surrounding the park at Fortezza becomes the social, commercial and culinary center of this medieval Tuscan town. Juxtaposed next to the massive stone walls of the ancient fort, hundreds of awnings rise and spread in the early morning darkness.

Rain or shine, merchants of every sort set out their wares, flea market style. In this section there may be purses, shoes and other leather goods. Tablecloths over here and garden tools over there. Clothing vendors provide makeshift dressing rooms with full length mirrors tipped precariously against nearby boulders or trees. Women pour over tables with massive piles of coats, shirts, T-shirts and even bras and underwear. At one end, food sellers offer prepared foods, produce, herbs, meat and fish. My favorite, the ancient man who sells honey of every sort imaginable, wraps the precious jars in sheets torn from old phone books, slowly, carefully creasing the paper around the glass with his thick fingers.

I’ve come to the market this morning to look for a birthday gift for Costanza, the grand niece of my Sienese sweetheart. But truthfully, I would have come without any real reason at all. I love the mercado. It is early April and the weather has been stubborn about warming. Today’s sunshine has brought out both tourists and locals…we are elbow to elbow in the narrow aisles. The pace is a slow shuffle. Older italian men wander and watch with their hands clasped comfortably behind their backs. Young women with little ones balance their bags and their babies on their hips while searching for bargains. Older women shop in pairs or small groups and are more aggressive about quickly sorting through the offerings, commenting to one another and the vendors regarding quality, style and value. Mostly value. I’d like to stop and savor the little bits of sun filtering through the patchwork of awnings but as slowly as the traffic moves, it continues to flow and stopping for long is impossible.

Drifting by the tables and listening to the market sounds, I note that my italian has improved a bit. (Piano piano, they say in italian, slowly, slowly.). I smile as I recognize snippets of conversation. The ever polite italian discourse between two donne continues after one has provided her counter opinion to the other; comunque, hai un punto…(however, you have a point…). A vendor describes a frying pan as il migliore, the best, as a doubtful gentleman listens politely. A quartet of old friends converge near the gorgeous bundles of baby artichokes and create a knot in the flow of shoppers as they catch up on family news. (There’s a new baby! A brother is just home from the ospedale.) They are oblivious to the jam they have created.

I see a gaggle of tired tourists with their giant camera lenses bouncing off of backs and shoulders in the crowd. They grow frustrated as they discover there is no fast way out once tunneled in here with the masses. Relax, I want to tell them. You want to see Italy? It’s right here, all around you. Look. Listen. Go slow. And for heaven’s sake, stay the course. People watch. Taste a sample of salami and pecorino. Savor the sweet smell of fresh strawberries. Part with a few euro and bring home a jar of the best honey you’ll ever taste. Souvenier page of old italian phone numbers included, no extra charge.




The G-List

Sophie is a cosmic vibration. Elfin, fierce, loving… primed equally to start a belly laugh that will have you crying and gasping for breath or a righteous battle if she smells a bully and an underdog. She’s a blur of energy, constantly in motion.

Sophie, like me, has been searching for something for a long time now. A better way to live, a better way to handle the karma we’ve been born into. We’re both on a quest to leave our toxic beginnings behind us and use those hardships as the nucleus of change instead of permission for thoughtless behavior and failed relationships. She lives and learns every day to channel her energy and anger into loving kindness toward herself and the world.   It has been a gift to watch her grow.

Several years ago Sophie asked friends Kathy, Dee and me to join her in sharing three things we are grateful for via email every day.   This gratitude list (now shorthanded to the “G-List” as we laughingly call ourselves the “G-Chicks”) has persevered for more than two years now.   Even when life gets hectic and a few days go by without the list, one of us will pick it up again and keep it going. The entries usually have two parts; the “what” or “whom” followed by the “why” as we remind ourselves why it is important.

I kept a gratitude journal sporadically up until then, a solo effort, after reading Martin E.P. Seligman’s book, Authentic Happiness while getting my master’s degree in psychology a few years ago. The field of positive psychology has so much to offer beyond traditional psychology. One attempts to help you to be less sad and the other gives you tools to be more happy -to find contentment in life.  Keeping a gratitude journal is a basic tenant of positive psychology and a huge impetus in turning around negative thinking. Sharing the G-List with friends makes it a habit with accountability.

When I was struggling with the recent events in my life, the G-List helped turn things around for me.  How can one complain about the flaws in a temporary rental home when so many sleep on city streets?   How can one complain about having to downsize belongings when every day we see people who escape violence in war zones with only the clothes on their backs? How can one complain about a respectful parting of ways when so many suffer through divorces that are churning with anger and sometimes violence?

The G-List encourages us to consider life in a different way. We are, as midlife insomniacs, sometimes grateful for what little sleep we did get at night instead of being upset that we’re not fully rested -again.  We are grateful that, while weather may cancel long awaited plans, no one was injured in the storm and we can still get our mom to dialysis.  We are grateful as a big ugly car repair looms that we (ouch) have the resources to pay for it. We are grateful to see new doors opening instead of bathing in bitterness about things we cannot control.

So after wallowing for a little while in a sea of self-pity after my divorce, my G-List entries begin to reflect some positive changes in thinking. I am grateful for my health because it allows me to do the things I love to do. I am grateful for my friends and my children because they make my life sweet and complete.

While not a wealthy woman in financial terms, I am grateful to be able to live contentedly with abbastanza, Italian for “enough.” Being happy with less allows me to take on work because I love it, not because I need it. I am grateful for the G-List because it confirms every day that I am wealthy in a million more important ways. And I am grateful for Sophie, our whirling dervish, who in her determination to thrive has helped the rest of us live that much better.

The End of Everything

Music is shuffling through the headphones as I make a half-hearted effort to dislodge the dust and dog hair from the crappy carpeting in the rental. Upbeat songs for running are interspersed with Christmas music, an odd klezmer download, beginning Italian lessons, classical and new age stuff that I don’t even remember recording.   My brain registers slight annoyance at the random selections but it’s not worth fixing. I’m not really listening.

It’s been more than a week since the crushing moment in the attorney’s office and I’m not feeling any better. Still lost.   Still trying to make sense of how and why the bottom has fallen out of a life that was once so promising by conventional standards. How did I find myself single parenting once again, underemployed and lacking a permanent address?  Today I understand better that my lawyer didn’t mean anything personal when he summed up my not-complicated estate planning by saying “you’ve got nothing.” Still, those words sadly summarized the state of things and I am stuck feeling very, very sorry for myself.   Cue the tiny violin and the slide trombone. Waaa waaa waaaaaaa.

The music selection changes and a new song begins.   The repeated lyric passes once, twice, three times. The fourth time I finally hear it. It’s a Bob Schneider song.

“It’s not the end of everything, it’s just the end of everything you know.”

I have a mother who believes in Meant To Be to the degree that if a parking space opens, it’s some star-based entity cosmically looking out for her.   I don’t believe in destiny for things mundane but there are bumper sticker moments like this one that swoop down and provide a karmic slap upside the head.

It’s not the end of everything, it’s just the end of everything I know.   Maybe not having anything is just right, right now.   No responsibilities, no future plans, nowhere I have to be. Maybe I can work with this.  My chest opens, the heaviness begins to lift.  I sing the chorus out loud for the rest of the song and imagine again the long waaaaaa waaaaaaa of the pity party trombone.  This time I laugh at myself and shake it out of my head.

A new refrain.  It’s time to get over yourself.  Time to be grateful for what you have.   Time to be open to new possibilities.   Time to begin again.

And just like that the funk lifts.   I switch off the vacuum and wind the headphones into their case. My lab. Rain, tail happily beating the air behind him, comes running with his oversized tennis ball stuffed into his mouth. The sun is shining. Let’s play.

Moments of Clarity

“You’ve got nothing.”

I am sitting in the office of my attorney, an older, proper southern gentleman who speaks his mind. He doesn’t mince words and usually offers his counsel only after a long ruminating pause. From past experience I know it is best not to chatter to fill the space between his pronouncements.   So I sit quietly, staring alternately at the ceiling and at a painting of former Republican presidents anachronistically gathered together at a table, playing cards. It reminds me of the classic dogs playing poker scene.

I am here to get a new will drafted. My divorce is final and our house has been sold. My last child has turned 18. The multi-paged document that outlined the ultimate disbursement of our prior lives is no longer necessary.   What he meant was that I needed only a few pages of straightforward legalese at this point in my life.   What I heard was more literal.   My stomach flipped and I had to force myself to take a slow, deep breath.

If my sweet and romantic Italian moment of clarity was a high point, this was truly a low. Harsh, painful, clear.   What my adept attorney saw as a simplification of circumstances was translated by my stressed and emotional brain as a statement of pity and a judgment on how I had failed. I tried so hard to build a contented life, a happy home, a loving family.  The beautiful house was gone along with my flower-filled garden which had always provided therapy during difficult times. Many of my things had been sold or given away in order to move into small rental while I sorted out my life. My children had grown. My marriage had dissolved. In very real terms, he was right. I had nothing.

Google “moment of clarity” and similar stories appear from the lives of others.   It’s different for everyone. Sometimes it occurs after one hits an extreme low point and there is seemingly nowhere to go. Sometimes it is inspired by something observed in the trials of another, the death of a loved one, or by a hearing about someone’s similar experiences.   It can be a wonderful moment or rock bottom difficult.

My moments of clarity tend to arrive in two distinct phases. There is the moment when reality breaks through the distractions and the moment when the path ahead becomes clear however difficult or blessed that may be.   Sometimes this happens simultaneously. Sometimes the first event doesn’t lead quickly or directly to the second. This time the wave that had knocked me into the sand would hold me under the water for a long while.

Stunned and shaking, I slowly wrote out the check for legal services, walked down the elegant stairs to the lobby and got behind the wheel of my car.   Anxiety and sorrow tend to gather in my mid-section and it took a few minutes of focused breathing to uncoil from this modified fetal position and become upright enough to drive. That night was sorrowful and sleepless with a million “what if’s” bouncing through my tired brain. How had it come to this? The sadness was overwhelming and suffocating.   What was I supposed to do with this moment of clarity? I was drowning.   I had nothing.IMG_0262

Begin Again

The moon is already out and full on a late summer evening in Terni, Italy.   We are on our way, by bus, to see a Russian ballet company perform Swan Lake in an ancient, open-air amphitheater down town.   The light is that golden, hazy color that gives everything a magical, surreal glow. The day has begun transitioning and the marvelous glow is already edged by twilight. I press my face and hands to the windows. I want to breathe it in and keep it with me for as long as possible.

The sense of excitement we all feel is palpable on the bus with everyone pointing out the windows and commenting on some aspect of this new experience. Due to the performance, the downtown traffic is thick with cars. Pedestrians are weaving their way towards the front gates, holding hands, laughing and embracing one another. The Italian women are gorgeous in their seriously high heels and form fitting eveningwear. The men are decked out in similarly grand fashion.   In Italy, creating a bella figura is a cultural given. You can wear what you want in your home but when you go out, you make a beautiful figure, dressed to impress, looking sharp for yourself as much as for your fellow citizens.

I have come to Italy to attend an art school in Umbria. I don’t consider myself an artist – far from it- but after leaving an intense corporate job have taken a sort of sabbatical to try to rest, recover and figure out the future.   This school, La Romita, is for people at all skill levels. The teachers are from my hometown so I am comfortable that I won’t further embarrass myself as a rank beginner with instructors I haven’t met. Plus it’s an adventure. Every day we are bussed to a new little town. One can sit and paint plein air style or, as I opted to do with my friend John, explore the village by foot and take photos to paint from later. We return to the school in the afternoons for studio time in the old chapel that now serves as an art room.   At night we eat family style, drink table wine by the liter, rehash the day and watch short videos about the next day’s sights.

This trip to the ballet was not on the original schedule but we are able to take advantage of a free night.   Our driver, the very sweet and sexy Luciano, has had the ladies swooning for the past week and when he parks the bus, stands attentively at the door to help each of us to descend.   Ever the observer, I like to sit in the back of the bus and so, am always the last to alight.   As I step down onto the pavement, I am still holding Luciano’s hand when I teasingly ask him if he is coming with us.   His English is not good and my Italian is non-existent but I think he understands what I have said.

Many, many cultural and gender stereotypes come crashing down at that moment, but I am blissfully unaware of them all until much later.   I am assuming he, like many American men, are happier with a beer and a ball game than with the ballet. I am assuming that he is ready to dump the whole lot of us flirting, aging, giggling American women, roll his eyes and head to a quiet place to wait while the ballet takes place.   I am assuming that in two seconds this goofy class clown will be on her way to catch up with the group, laughing pleasantly at a shared joke with a nice man and in the same general condition that I was when I took that last step off of the bus.

Instead, he hesitates a moment and looks at me until I make eye contact. He is still holding my hand.   While my intent was to kid around lightheartedly, he has taken my invitation seriously and is touched. He explains that he can’t come with us, that he has to find a parking place and wait with the bus. He tells me how much he appreciates the thought.   He takes my other hand, looks deeply into my eyes and thanks me again in his wonderfully accented English.   And then, he leans forward, undoubtedly to buss my cheek but I move awkwardly and somehow the kiss lands just south of my jaw on the pulse point of my neck.

I’m still not sure why everything changed in that moment. Perhaps my senses were already heightened by the exploration of a new culture.   Maybe it had something to do with re-learning how to “see” as I was surrounded by so many incredible artists and works of art. Whatever the trigger, there was an overwhelming aura of clarity and sensory awareness. Life had been so insulating in its comforting sameness for so many years. The curtain had parted. I didn’t know I was sleeping until I was fully, passionately, shockingly, wide-awake.   Life began again.