This is an illustrated children’s book:
Life is full of “monsters.” Anxiety is the most common mental health issue seen in children. Children cope with anxiety in various ways, e.g., by avoiding, getting sick, distracting with video games, having temper tantrums, or numbing out with food. This book shows children how to face their fears in a healthy and empowering way that brings true peace and resolution.
It’s available on Amazon:
run run run get out of here before it’s too late just get out leave run away oh shut up shut up you know I can’t please help get me out of here run away no I have to keep walking and smiling through the hall and down the stairs and into the courtyard and someone help me can’t anyone see me see how terrified I am get me out of here don’t be ridiculous I can’t leave what would everyone think no no no it’s impossible there’s no way out I got myself into this and now I have to do what I always do swallow the truth and put a smile on my face and tell myself everything will be all right and pretend I’m happy but I’m not I’m trapped I can’t breathe I can’t leave yes you can you can just walk out just go now do it before it’s too late no I can’t oh dear lord yes you can but you won’t because you’re a good girl and it would be too fucking embarrassing and I’m doomed ohmygod I’m going to regret this I’m already regretting this it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever done but I can’t just leave and walk away what a terrible thing to do I couldn’t do that has anyone ever done that really just walked away you hear stories but who could do such a thing well other than mom she could do it that’s true but she’s a little crazy and doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks she even bit that guy’s finger when he shoved it in her face who in their right mind bites other people jeez but I am not like her I do care what other people think of me I care a lot I’m a good person and everyone would be so shocked you know what they would say it would be too humiliating so what at least you’d be free oh god get me out of here I don’t want to do this shut up you are making things so difficult I can’t leave it will be all right I’m sure it will and how could I hurt him it’s not his fault he’s a nice guy but you don’t love him you know you don’t of course I do no you don’t he’s not smart enough and you don’t want to look at that but it’s true no it’s not what a terrible thing to say he’s smart in his own way no he isn’t and he’s not creative enough or mature enough or anything enough and I’m going to be trapped forever oh help how could you let it get this far why didn’t you stop it when you saw that it wasn’t going to work you know why I didn’t stop it god help us you didn’t want to hurt his feelings what a stupid reason and now look what you’ve done get me out of here you should have stopped it a long time ago you are such an idiot but it will be all right no it won’t be all right and now you’re trapped and you’re going to be miserable and then you’ll have kids and when you finally get up the nerve to leave they will never stop blaming you for destroying their family and ruining their lives you think it would be painful and humiliating to leave now just wait until you’re getting divorced oh god oh god what can I do so how about an annulment how long do you have for that maybe six weeks and which one would be less humiliating leaving now or getting an annulment in a couple of weeks no shut up I don’t want to think like that I’m making a promise don’t you understand what that means I take my promises seriously I can’t just walk down the aisle planning the annulment I will do this and make the best of it and I will never get divorced oh lord there’s that good girl again you are so sickening you’d rather doom yourself to a lifetime of boredom and loneliness than leave but I don’t want to do this I want to get out of here I don’t want to make promises I don’t want to stay with him forever can’t I just run away and make it all disappear I’ve been stupid stupid stupid and all you have to do is say I’m sorry I can’t do this and go home but what would we do with the band and the photographer and all that food are you fucking kidding me you’re worried about the fucking food oh help how did this happen how did I get into this mess you wanted to be loved that’s how you got into this mess you wanted life to be all rosy and happy ever after that’s how you poor fool you wanted a family that felt safe and happy not like it was with mom so congratulations here you are and he can do that I know he can he never yells at me no he never yells at you because he doesn’t even look at you he isn’t even here haven’t you noticed and you keep trying to feel close and he avoids and smiles he doesn’t see you doesn’t hear you doesn’t have a clue who you really are ohmygod I’ll have to live with that forever I can’t do this but he’s not a bad person not angry he can learn how to be close can’t he I’m sure he’ll want to do that doesn’t everyone want that to feel close all I have to do is be safe and kind and gentle and never criticize and never get angry and he’ll let me in won’t he but what if he can’t what if this is all there is wake up honey pay attention pay attention don’t you feel it that terrible loneliness of being with him but it won’t be like this when we’re married surely the commitment and caring and living together will build something and it will be all right surely one day he will look in my eyes at least he will if I can be what he needs I can do that I can I’ve never been critical even when he invited me to his place for lunch and every dish every single fucking dish in the house was dirty and piled up in the sink and I never said a word just started washing dishes even though I was appalled I never said a word just washed that mountain of dishes while he sat around god you are such a sap so I can do that I can be soft I’m used to being left with the dirty work while mom watches tv I’m used to swallowing my words and choking down my anger because it doesn’t do any good anyway does it so I know how to accept it all and just take care of everything and then he will relax and look at me and really see me and we will have that closeness that complicity that some couples have those little smiles or a glance across the room we will feel fully known and fully accepted and we will trust each other and support each other and stand together against anything feeling close and connected everyone wants that don’t they so why do you still feel like this like he’s so far away even when he’s right here don’t you understand he wants you to be there wants you to wash the damn dishes but he doesn’t want to be close he doesn’t want to look in your eyes he doesn’t want to really see you or be seen he wants to stay behind that big wall but I can make it safe enough for him to come out I can see who he really is a sweet little boy who just wants to be loved and we could build a life together and have kids he likes kids likes playing with them anyway not sure about the rest of it and you’re afraid to look at that aren’t you and now you’re here and it’s too late and he will be another child and you will have to be the mommy and you can’t look at that either can you oh god no I can’t I’m trapped and I’ll never get to finish my project and get my degree and do what I’d really like to do oh stop whining for god’s sake that would take years and he needs you to support him so he can finish his own program and it will be worth it right it will be worth it and he’ll appreciate the sacrifice I’m making and he’ll love me more won’t he oh yeah of course he will don’t you get it you’re being a sap again but when he’s done I won’t have to work at all I can just be a mom won’t that be great yeah great but you’ll never get to oh just stop you know it’s a fantasy who knows if I’d ever finish at all or if anyone would ever hire me the field is so tight right now I just need to focus on what’s needed now today he needs me to do this so he won’t have a mountain of debt when he’s done and he’ll love me for it won’t he I’m sure he will oh don’t you get it you’re abandoning your dreams abandoning yourself how can you do this to yourself like that poor stupid stepsister chopping off her toes to try to fit into the glass slipper but it doesn’t work and there’s all that blood and Disney never told us about that did he you’re right I’m doing a stupid stupid thing I just want to run away but now here’s dad looking happy and handsome with his blue eyes and silver hair smiling and proud just tell him tell him tell him before it’s too late that you don’t want to do this he’ll help you he won’t judge shut up don’t be stupid I can’t do that I’m standing back here listening for the music in this church all sleek and modern and all that glass and light and everyone looking at us and I can’t just say get me out of here dad why not of course you can he’ll help you he wouldn’t want you to marry someone you don’t love you know he wouldn’t but everyone is here gramma and grandad and friends and relatives three hundred people all dressed up and smiling with their hands full of presents oh god the presents and a whole mountain of them sitting in my bedroom boxes and boxes of nice things and loving wishes everyone hoping that we will be happy and what could I do with all of that just send them all back I suppose oh no I couldn’t do that shit shit shit I don’t care about presents I don’t care about being embarrassed I just want to run away oh just shut up and be quiet I’m not going to leave it’s too late we’re all here yeah we’re all here on this perfect fucking day with that clear blue fucking sky through the beautiful big fucking windows and you will regret this no I won’t it will be all right because we are two good people so if anyone can do this right surely we can and we can do a better job of it than mom and dad anyway who were such a mess even dad but especially mom all the drinking and ranting and throwing things while the dog and I huddled under the covers in my bed and both of us shaking and I will never do that to anyone never be like that so I will accept him just as he is and I will never let myself see what I see that little boy and all that weakness and I won’t let it bother me that he is always somewhere else not here and so hidden that he’s almost empty but I am not like her I will be whatever he needs me to be but don’t you get it you are chopping off your fucking toes oh stop being so melodramatic it will be all right I will do what I need to do and I will make it safe for him to come out and be here with me and he won’t have to hide behind that wall behind that pleasant smile behind those vacant eyes he will look at me and I will know that he sees me and loves me and it will be all right and I’m sure we can do this because we care about each other don’t we and thank god he doesn’t drink or do drugs or cheat and he won’t yell at me or throw things and what more do I want we all have problems and his aren’t so bad it could be much worse much worse I’m sure it will be all right and here’s the music and okay just do it get going start walking dad looks so happy you can do this just walk walk keep walking keep smiling and everyone is watching everyone is smiling all the way down the aisle and here he is he loves me of course he loves me and it will be all right it will be all right it will be all right
If I have to watch one more scene where actors who hardly know each other are humping and bumping and sweating and cooing and mooing and pretending to be excited and to want each other and love each other, I will throw up.
Am I the only one? Does anyone else see how bizarre it is that the vast majority of our movies, whether they are romances, comedies, dramas, or action, are all about sex? That the vast majority of advertising uses sex to sell pretty much everything? What does sex have to do with cars or soft drinks or shoes? Why do the mannikins in store windows have nipples? Good lord. Do they think that seeing nipples under a blouse will stimulate me to buy it? How odd.
Imagine for a moment that we take a trip to another planet where our hosts take us to a movie that is ostensibly an action story about heroism, courage, loyalty, and endurance. But running all through the action is an underlying tension about…(ahem) food.
Whenever our hero passes a bakery while chasing the bad guy, he pauses and goes into a trance-like state. The music shifts from loud and zippy to slow and sweet. Our hero inhales deeply, then slips into the bakery to buy a cream puff. There are close-ups of the whipped cream and the smooth yellow custard. The sugar sparkles in the early morning sunlight slanting through the window. Our hero nuzzles and slurps and chews and savors it with painful and exquisite joy. When he gets to the custard he moans gently and catches his breath. He slowly licks the goopy stuff off his upper lip…
Wouldn’t we conclude that those people were a little weird about food? And wouldn’t someone from another planet conclude that we are a little weird about sex? Why can’t we just appreciate, celebrate, and enjoy sex the way we appreciate, celebrate, and enjoy food? We all enjoy a yummy cream puff now and then but gorging on mountains of cream puffs in public orgies of ecstasy would suggest that our priorities were a teensy bit skewed.
I hope that as you move forward you will have triumphs and successes, that you will explore the world, that you will learn and grow, that you will bust out of that confining, crushing straitjacket that you call your comfort zone. But more than anything else, I hope that you will be happy.
You are at one of the major crossroads of your life, moving from childhood into adulthood. You will be making many important decisions over the next few months and years, what classes to take, what major to declare, what clubs to join, what jobs to take, where you choose to live… But the most important decision you make is not what you choose to do, it’s who you choose to be.
In order to survive as teenagers, we often have to put a shield over our hearts in order to protect ourselves. We lock the vulnerable parts of ourselves in a closet, our warmth, gentleness, kindness, compassion, affection, thoughtfulness. Our open-heartedness. Our ability to love and be loved.
Instead, we learn to use the parts of us that keep others at a distance and keep us on top, the arrogant, unkind parts that protect us from getting put down by others. In the teenage world, the meanest guy, the one who cares least about other people, is often the top dog.
But things change as we become adults. The same strategies that worked for you as a teenager will often backfire for you as an adult. If your only goal is to accrue power and wealth, they may be helpful, but what if you want more than that? What if you want to have true friends who genuinely like and care about you, who will support you when things get tough? What if you want to have supervisors and coworkers who respect you and like having you on their team? What if you want to have a partner who sees who you really are and loves you more than anyone else in the world?
If you do, then those distancing, arrogant, self-protective strategies won’t work. People who put others down, who talk about others behind their backs, who do their best to make others feel small, don’t do well as adults. Teenagers often suck-up to them, but healthy adults avoid them. People don’t want to work with them or be around them. Partners get hurt and leave them. They end up…lonely.
So what does work?
Having the courage to take the locks off the closet and let all those kind, warm, affectionate, considerate parts of you out into the sunshine. Opening your heart. That’s what works. Use your wisdom, of course. Don’t be a fool and just throw your heart open to anyone. Learn to discern who is trustworthy and who is not. Some people aren’t, but don’t let that stop you. Find the trustworthy ones and let them see the real you, the beautiful being that you really are, underneath all those protective layers. Let yourself see how beautiful everyone else is. Look underneath all the protections and see who they really are. Let yourself love with your whole heart. Let yourself be loved.
Open your heart. It’s the only way to be truly happy.
We marry our unfinished business…
She is a warm and intelligent middle-aged woman with a clear gaze and a quick smile. She’s also angry. She tells me that she was married for twenty years and had three grown children. Even though she and her husband have been divorced for ten years, she is still feeling angry towards him, grieving for the family she lost, grieving for the pain it caused her children. This sickens and confuses her, and she wants to be free of it. She doesn’t understand how she could still be so angry at a “nice guy.” He wasn’t abusive, didn’t drink or do drugs, and didn’t cheat on her. “It really wasn’t his fault. We just didn’t fit, that’s all. So why am I still angry?”
As we talk it becomes obvious that she has been angry at him not just since the divorce, but in truth since their early marriage. She was deeply committed to their marriage and refused to give up on it year after year even though she felt lonely, sad, and frustrated. “I never wanted a divorce, but I was so unhappy. I thought that if I stayed any longer I would get sick, I would get cancer or something. I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but that’s the way it felt.”
And she still can’t understand what the real problem was. “We were two decent, intelligent, responsible people. Why couldn’t we be happy?” She thinks for a minute. “Or I guess it’s more to the point to say, why couldn’t I be happy? He seemed to be fine with the way things were.” She sighs and says ruefully, “Basically he wanted me to just shut up and be happy.”
We talk about her yearning for connection. “I tried for all those years to build a real relationship. Doesn’t everyone want that? Connection? Trust? Support? I thought that if only I could make him understand, we could be happy. I tried being gentle and supportive, I tried books, I tried seminars. I dragged him to four marriage therapists over a period of ten years, but nothing ever worked. For a long time I actually believed that I must be not smart enough, not attractive enough, and that’s why he ignored me. Later I believed that we didn’t have the communication skills that we needed. Eventually I believed that he couldn’t tolerate being close. Just couldn’t do it. How can I be angry at him for that?”
We talk about how common it is for one partner’s desire for emotional intimacy to run smack up against the other partner’s desire to avoid emotional intimacy, and the resulting vicious circles, e.g., the more she pursues, the more he runs away, and the more he runs away, the more she pursues, etc.
As we’re talking about the patterns in their relationship, she suddenly sits straight up with wide eyes. I give her a moment, and finally she says, “Oh my god. I thought that he just couldn’t do it, couldn’t understand, that that was just the way he was, like he was handicapped or something. But that’s not true, is it? The truth is that he wouldn’t do it. He chose to avoid any real connection.”
This has obviously rocked her, and I give her time to think about it. After a few minutes she looks at me and says, “He simply wasn’t going to do it, no matter what, but neither was he going to come out and be honest about that. That’s what he did with pretty much everything. I’d ask him to do something for me and he’d say okay, but he would never do it. Eventually I’d just do it myself, to avoid the unpleasantness. I didn’t want to be a nag. It was like he wore a ‘nice guy’ mask, but his unspoken message was, ‘I won’t come right out and say no, but I will never, ever, do what you want.’”
We talk about the childhood wounds that drive these cycles. He had a depressed, alcoholic mother, and his pattern was: I won’t rock the boat, I won’t challenge anything, I’ll be a nice guy. I will pretend to be caring and cooperative on the outside, but on the inside I will hide myself behind an insurmountable wall. Women are weak and sick and needy; women are contemptible; women are dangerous.
And her pattern was rooted in her relationship with her own raging, rejecting mother: If I’m a good girl will you see me, accept me, love me?
“I intentionally married someone who wasn’t violent like my mother,” she says, “but no matter how hard I worked at being a supportive and loving and patient wife, I felt abandoned, alone, resentful, unloved, unseen, angry, hopeless, and powerless. Just like I did with Mom.”
When I ask her to consider what her own unspoken message was, she squirms uncomfortably. “My unspoken message to him was, ‘You’re not loving enough, caring enough, present enough, open enough, smart enough, capable enough…’ Basically, it was, ‘You’re not good enough’, which is probably how his own mother made him feel.”
She gets teary. “All these years I thought it was about a lack of love or a lack of skills. But the deeper truth was that there were these little child parts of us that were afraid of being hurt, criticized, and abandoned.
“I’m not angry anymore.” She sighs. “Just sad.”
There are fifty people sitting silently on poufy little pillows around the large hall. We are on a ten-day silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock. Forty-five minutes of sitting meditation, forty-five minutes of walking meditation, all day long. Two sessions of qigong, morning and afternoon. Vegetarian meals, everything completely silent. We are surrounded by rolling hills of tall golden grass. We are settling ourselves in the big warm hall. They ring the little gong.
I breathe, relaxing into the stillness and silence. Thoughts come and go. I swim through the usual sludge, then it gets quieter, and eventually I am aware of a deep wondering. What am I? Who am I? I wonder about the essence of who I really am, the rock bottom, the whatever-it-is that doesn’t change. Surely there is something. Is it gender? Is it my values? I look at my life, my roles, my history. I go down through the list of all the things that feel important and unique about me, but it turns out to be…slippery. I can’t find anything solid.
So much has changed and keeps on changing. I’m not the same person I was twenty years ago, or even five. Physically, of course, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, as well. My beliefs have changed, my way of seeing myself and the world, my values, my goals. I think surely being a woman is part of my deep essence, but as I look back down the years my awareness slips back to another lifetime, and another, and another. Some lifetimes as a woman, others as a man. Some as a slave, and others holding the whip. Gender, race, nationality, roles, professions… One by one I look at them; at first each one feels fundamental to who I am, but then it slides away. There’s nothing to hold onto. Each lifetime making different choices and asking different questions. What would it be like to be a soldier? A beggar? A dancer? A priest? A potter? I lose all the anchors of my identity. Everything I have held onto as defining who I am fades away. None of them feels essential or eternal. There is a moment of panic, then I just let it all go.
I feel myself dissolving into mist.
After a while something else begins to emerge, a seemingly contradictory but equally true thing. I feel the clear and absolute nowness of this particular lifetime, of being born in this place, at this time, and into this family. I am this specific nationality, race, and gender. I have this kind of body and this kind of mind. I have these values, these strengths, and these challenges. I feel all this, this constellation, this soup of who and what I am right now. It has weight and substance and truth.
The two awarenesses come together in my mind. On one side I feel the solidity of being me and all that I am, in this lifetime, in this moment. On the other side there is nothing but mist. I hold them both and just sit with them.
They ring the little gong. Time to get up and walk out into the morning sunshine and the golden hills. Time to put these bare feet onto this beautiful earth.
I’m meditating… And Toto just pulled the curtain. I not only see the little man pulling the levers, I see that I AM the little man pulling the levers. And Toto. I’m Glinda the Good and the Wicked Witch of the West. I’m the munchkins and the winged monkeys and the Yellow Brick Road. I’m Oz and Kansas and the tornado and the little girl watching herself playing Dorothy in the movie on TV.
I can feel all the little gears and flippy-flappy cards rolling and shifting when I change my thoughts, when I let go of a resentment, or when I choose to radiate peace. I can feel the earth and everything on it making an infinitesimally slight but significant shift. There is one more drop of dew in the desert. A mother in Inverness smiles at her child. A man looks at his wife and really sees her. A sculptor in Cusco gets an idea. A breeze in San Juan ruffles a wind chime.
I see that everything is perfect. All the beauty, sadness, pain, death, love…it’s all perfect. It’s teaching me exactly what I need to know, giving me all the opportunities I need, all the pressures, pleasures, pain, frustrations, challenges, things lost and found, babies gone, torment, despair…everything I need to walk into the knowledge of who I really am, to know, really know, that I myself am the wise and wonderful Wizard.
I dreamed of Kali. I know she has come to teach me something. Black skin all shiny with sweat, long black hair all tangled and snaky, nearly naked, a necklace of skulls, holding two long sharp knives, snarling, wild, joyful, blood all around. She terrifies me. She fascinates me.
What is she teaching me? I feel the edge of her power, her blackness, filling my body. I feel my arms holding the long sharp knives. And I see that I gave away my power over and over again, all through my life. I became a nice girl. A good girl. A victim.
I gave away my power to all the people who intimidated me, frightened me, abused me, tormented me, discounted me, dismissed me, groped, grabbed, molested, raped me, all those who twisted my mind, body, thoughts, and emotions to fill their own needs and suit their own purposes, those who insulted me, manipulated me, treated me as less than, judged me, shamed me, all those who derived pleasure from hurting me or forcing me, all those who stole from me (my possessions, my body, my innocence, trust, peace of mind, safety, joy, hope, my truth, my own sense of right and wrong, my own sense of self).
I gave away my power to all the people I wanted to please, all those whose respect or affection or love or approval I wanted or needed. I exiled parts of myself, crushed my feelings, denied my truth, strangled my words, twisted my thoughts, extinguished my light, denied my needs, cut off bits and pieces of myself in order to please, tried to shame or kill the parts of me that were unacceptable.
I gave away my power to the church, forcing myself to swallow doctrines that didn’t make sense, that made me feel sick, accepting customs and beliefs that reinforced my powerlessness. I gave away my power to an idea of God that kept me feeling ashamed, helpless, hopeless, worthless, and guilty, afraid of saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing, believing the wrong thing, or else…
I gave away my power to all those I envied…those who were beautiful or wealthy or intelligent, who were talented and creative, to all those who had kind and loving families.
I gave away my power to the patriarchy, the culture, the educational system, the political system, the way things are, authorities, laws, customs, to everyone who raised an eyebrow at me.
And now I am taking my power back. I have taken back parts of it before, over these last years. I stopped allowing my mother to abuse me. I left the church, left relationships, left jobs. I stood up to people, said no, started honoring myself, faced my fears, one after another, over and over, more and more and more fears. And now I am looking straight at it, every bit of it, back through my entire lifetime, through all my lifetimes. I am naming it, feeling it in my bones, and Taking. It. Back.
Just say One True Thing, my friend once told me. This helps, especially when I’m fearful, troubled, or stuck. I am all three on the morning my second son is nine months old and I say One True Thing to my husband: “I’m not suicidal, exactly. I just can’t think of any good reason to live.”
As soon as I say it I’m horrified. It feels shameful. It is a profound and terrifying failure, not just a failure of some course or project, but a Failure of Being. How did an overachieving, responsible, “good girl” like me end up like this? I have everything I wanted: a degree from Stanford, marriage, two children…and I don’t want to live.
How am I going to do this? How am I going to get through the rest of my life? A quiet little thought comes into my head, just pops there out of the blue: I could drink.
This shocks me, it scares me to death. I don’t even like to drink. My mother drank, and the thought of ending up like her frightens me into calling a counselor and begging to be seen as soon as possible, like today. One part of me wants desperately to just curl up in someone’s lap and be soothed, to be reassured, to be taken care of, to be fixed. But another part of me wants to smash all the old ways of taking the easy way out and needing to be good and right and perfect.
I want to find someone who can really hear me, who can listen to this deep ugliness, who will not freak out or avoid or placate me. My husband can’t do it. He says, “Oh, hon, don’t talk like that,” and walks out the door. My friends will be worried. They will tell me to pull myself together, to look at all the positive things in my life. They will want to pray with me. I don’t need those things. I need someone who has the courage to go down into the dark places with me and help me face the monsters. I need a warrior who isn’t afraid of truth, pain, rage, and death.
I find a warrior. I show her a sculpture I have made. It is the delicate porcelain head of a woman. She looks a little old-fashioned: black hair, white skin, small red berry of a mouth. But black cracks run all over her face and head, and in order to hold her together and keep her from falling apart, she has been wrapped round and round with barbed wire.
The warrior understands, and we begin the journey.
Italy I: Perugia
I’m ready for a new adventure. I ask myself the magical question: What would I really like to do? And what I answer myself is: Go to Italy. So here I am, studying Italian in Perugia, a medieval Umbrian hill town. Old stone buildings, red tile roofs, green shutters, and narrow winding cobblestone streets. The colors are all peachy and gold.
I live in a fourth floor walk-up flat with three other women (one Italian, one Israeli, and one Japanese). This means 70 stairs (I counted). Every time I go to the grocery store I go down 70 stairs, up the block, then up 98 stairs to get to the next street up, before walking three blocks to the store. But being up so high also means a great view. My room looks southwest onto steep ravines and orchards, with the steeples and turrets of the old city strung along the tops of the hills.
My Italian classes are held in an old palazzo built in 1750. One of my classrooms has a fresco on the ceiling of a plump pretty woman with one breast exposed, surrounded by three sweet little cherubs and fluffy pink clouds.
What more could I ask for?
Italy 2: Perugia
I’ve come a long way. I can now say in Italian, “In the morning I usually get up early,” “Does this bus go to the train station?” “What do you have for dessert?” and “I need a laxative.” I prepare myself with this last phrase before I go to the pharmacy, take a number, and stand in line. As I’m standing there it gradually dawns on me that I will have to speak my request (in my excellently prepared Italian) to the gentleman behind the counter while the four people behind me stand by, waiting for their turn. It’s very quiet in the little pharmacy. You can hear everything.
I decide to head for the supermercato and buy some prunes instead.
Italy 3: Assisi
Assisi is all pink and white and foufou like a wedding cake. There are twenty-nine churches, seminaries, and oratories in this tiny little town.
Like everyone else, I go the Basilica. I rent one of those little audio systems that will take me on a guided tour and enlighten me about St. Francis, the history of the cathedral, and its famous art. The young man in the booth quickly explains how it works, zip zip zip. I pay my 6 euro and start off on my tour, then realize that I can’t even figure out how to turn the damn thing on. I go back to the booth and ask him to explain it again. He does. I thank him and head back to the door of the Basilica. Now it’s turned on, but I can hardly hear it. I go back to the booth and ask if there is a volume control. There is, but it is already as high as it will go. Okay. Back to my tour. I get it turned on but now I can’t figure out how to choose a chapter of the tour. I keep poking and tapping, but this little gadget and I are not getting along. I go back to the booth and ask him to explain it again. He does. Very quickly. Zip zip zip. He taps here and flicks there and scrolls through the chapters, and I can feel my temperature rising and the muscles in my shoulders turning to cement, and I finally say, “Just forget the whole thing. Can I have my money back, please?”
So I wander through the Basilica, ignorant, but with my temperature gradually returning to normal. It’s a wonderful old building, soulful, a bit decrepit. It has a dark blue ceiling with golden stars, which reminds me of the illustrations in my favorite children’s books, like Mary Poppins and The Little Prince. It also has a lot of famous frescoes by Giotto that I still know nothing about.
Italy 4: Assisi
I walk all over Assisi with gobs of other pilgrims, and marvel at the variety of souvenirs for sale. There are oodles of holy trinkets and sacred doodahs…little ceramic things with “Pace e Bene” on them, drawings and photos of the town, little figurines of St Francis, crosses, rosaries, wines, cheeses, special breads, everything I can imagine. My favorite is a tiny dancing hula girl shaking her hips in a green grass skirt. I have no idea what her connection is to Assisi, but she is very happy.
Italy 5: Perugia
There are lots and lots of churches here. I love the ceilings, the graceful dance of intersecting arches. One big church has a whole bunch of voluptuous angels painted up there among the arches. What is the word? A flock of angels? A band? How about a crescendo of angels? I like that.
I love the music of the Italian language. Italian is vivace (lively and fast). It’s very different from French, which to my ears sounds adagio (slow, restful, at ease). Italian has a bouncy sort of rhythm to it, a syncopation. My favorite word is cappucho, which is the friendly way of saying cappuccino. It makes me feel happy just to say it. Cappucho! Cappucho! It sounds like dancing poodles.
Italy 6: Florence
I seem to be a different person than I was twenty years ago. I have had several proofs of this lately. The first one is that for many years past I have been drooling on and on about memories of pasta with white truffle sauce, but now that I’ve had a chance to eat it again, it’s not at all what I remembered. It’s actually a bit repulsive. How can that be? And twenty years ago Florence felt, well, oppressive. Not enough green. Too much brick. I couldn’t stand the Duomo. I’m the only person I know who couldn’t stand it…all that green and pink gobbledygook all over it like a birthday cake gone berserk.
But this time I find the Duomo delightful. It makes me laugh. It’s just so darn pretty. It’s what the Hallelujah Chorus would look like if it got turned into marble. And Florence doesn’t feel at all oppressive; it’s lovely and lively. The first time around I kept running into the Piazza della Republica (because it’s centrally located) and I hated it. It felt hard and impersonal and exhausting. So this time I avoid it entirely for three days until I accidently come upon a charming piazza, full of people walking, biking, eating, whirling around on the merry-go-round, listening to a jazzy trio playing something from a Woody Allen movie, and I think, what is this lovely place? I check the map, and sure enough, it’s the Piazza della Republica. I’m shocked. Where was I twenty years ago? Who was I?
Italy 7: Venice
I am afraid that Venice will be disappointing, after seeing so many pictures and paintings, and hearing all the hoopla. How can it possibly measure up? But it does. So does the Cathedral. Imagine the most elaborate sand castle possible, with a strange conglomeration of eastern and western domes and arches and columns, and then put pinwheels and whirlygigs and sparklers all over it, and there you have it: St. Mark’s Basilica. When I walk inside, the domed ceilings are all covered with glittery gold mosaics. One part of me thinks I should be offended at all the opulence, but I’m not. It’s stunningly beautiful, in a splooshy, decadent sort of way.
St. Mark’s Plaza is almost knee-deep in cold water. It’s winter, it’s been raining, and it’s high tide. Poor Venice. People slosh around in pink and blue plastic boots, which is an important tourist commodity in Venice. There are long catwalks that enable you to get from the dry surrounding areas across the flooded piazza into the cathedral. The catwalks are made of sturdy platforms about 3 feet wide, 8 feet long, and 3 feet high. There are long slow lines of people who have been through the security checkpoints and are waiting to get inside the cathedral out of the cold and damp.
And next to one of the platforms there is a little old lady kneeling in the freezing water, holding a large frayed paper cup out to the people slowly shuffling by. Her head is bowed and covered with a black scarf, she doesn’t say anything, doesn’t move, just kneels in the water and holds out her cup. She is wearing a thin jacket and a long, faded skirt that is now soaking wet. Once in a while someone drops some money into her cup. Others take photos and walk on. Suddenly there are two handsome young Italian policemen on the catwalk above her, saying, “Theresa, Theresa!” in kind but exasperated voices. They obviously know her well. They lean over, urging her to come up out of the water, and help her up. They escort her out of the piazza. The long line of tourists moves on into the resplendent golden fantasy world of the Basilica.
Italy 8: Venice
I decide that I want to see a very old illuminated manuscript called the Breviario Grimani, which is at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, just across the Piazza from St. Mark’s. I don’t really know what it is, but I know it’s famous, so I want to go look at it. When I walk in and ask to see it in my crude Italian the guard throws up his hands and says, oh no, you can’t see that! But I look forlorn (in Italian) and he phones someone and talks awhile, and then, with a bit of a wink, he says to wait. In a few minutes a sweet older lady comes out and tells me that no one can see it. Golly, I think, this thing must be awfully special. When I ask more questions (in my crude Italian) she says that they have a facsimile copy of the manuscript that I can look it if I really want to. I’m disappointed. A facsimile? You mean like a Xerox? But she says no, it looks just like the real one, so I say yes, I’d like to see it. Then she and the guard say that I have to go somewhere and do something with my passport before I can see it. Okay. The guard shows me where to go.
I walk into a little office where there is a man bent over some project and a woman at a desk with a computer. I don’t know why I’m there or what I’m supposed to be doing, so I just stand there. Finally the woman looks at me and I ask her if she speaks English. No, she says, with a bit of a sneer. So I say that I’d like to see the Breviario Grimani, and she sort of yells at me for a while and says one word over and over, a word I don’t understand. So I nod and keep standing there, and she turns to her computer and ignores me. For quite a long time. Finally I get the message, apologize for bothering her, and start backing out of the office. Then the man kicks into action and tells me in garbled English that I need to register. Okay, I say. How? The sneering woman sighs, asks for my passport, and writes down EVERYTHING on her forms. This takes a while. I’ve never seen anyone take down so much information off my passport. I didn’t know there WAS that much information on my passport. Then she takes a photo of me and disappears into a back room. When she returns she hands me a plastic library card with my photo and my own number. I thank her. Briefly.
Now I go back to the guard and say, whew, I survived. He grins (obviously he’s familiar with the sneering lady) and takes me to a rare books room where there are several people silently studying rare books. The room is pale green and full of delicate molding and painted swirly things. It has a high, coved ceiling. I show my card to the sweet older lady, who gets a younger lady to help her get my book out of a cupboard. It takes two sweet ladies, all bent over and straining, to carry the damn thing over to a table. It’s absolutely enormous. It must be about 8 inches by 10, and about 9 inches thick. It’s encased in a clear plexiglass box. The other people in the room look at all this fuss and this enormous book and frown at me. I can imagine them wondering who the heck I am and what I’m doing with this special book.
Now I’m getting nervous. This is a much bigger deal than I expected and I would gladly sink into the floor and disappear. But I can’t exactly say, please don’t trouble yourselves, it’s okay, I’ve changed my mind, I’ll be going now. So I smile and wait and try to ignore the people who are frowning at me. The two sweet ladies set the book up, very carefully, and open the plexiglass case, very carefully. They go get three little red velvet pillows to stack on one side of the book to support it as it is opened. They step back and smile at me and indicate that I’m supposed to just go ahead and look at the thing. All by myself. I can turn the pages and everything.
This is no Xerox. It looks exactly like a genuine 800-page illuminated manuscript written hundreds of years ago. The paper is thick and creamy. The calligraphy is exquisite. The colored drawings are brilliant and clear; some are full page and some are small, framing the elegant Latin calligraphy. There are beautiful drawings of the Annunciation, the birth of Jesus, the three wise men, the flight to Egypt, all the way through to the crucifixion and resurrection. But there are other drawings, too, secular drawings depicting everyday life on a feudal estate: sowing and reaping, farmhouses, barns, hunting scenes, countryside, castles, lords, ladies, cobblers, farmers, children, dogs, pigs, horses.
And right at the beginning, on the second page of the book, setting the tone for the whole thing, so to speak, is a full-page drawing of a farmhouse and barnyard in the wintertime. There is snow on the ground, and there are chickens and pigs and ducks running around. The farmer and his wife are in the kitchen where there is a fire in the stove, and they are beaming at their little boy, who is standing in the doorway, lifting his shirt and peeing out into the snow.
Italy 9: Rome
Where better to celebrate the miracle of Christmas than in Rome? I imagine lots of lights and decorations, and Christmas music everywhere, and am surprised to find that it’s actually rather subdued compared to the frantic hullaballoo in the US. There are very few lights at all until the first or second week of December, and then the displays are quite simple.
Most of the music in public places is just regular music, not Christmas music. This makes me happy. Every year I dread having to listen to “Feliz Navidad” over and over again, which I have had to listen to every Christmas since 1970 when it first came out. That’s almost 50 years of an extraordinarily obnoxious song. But I’m not hearing it in Italy. The Italians seem to like “Jingle Bells.” They play “Jingle Bells” at every Christmas concert I go to. One concert even does it twice (once for an encore). I’m not fond of “Jingle Bells” either, but it’s better than “Feliz Navidad.”
I go to a special exhibition of Nativity Scenes. There are 100 nativity scenes from all over the world. The scenes are made of everything imaginable: seeds and nuts, terracotta, bread, corn leaves, ostrich eggs, sheep wool and goat skin, lace, wire, palm fibers, stained glass, beeswax, bamboo, straw, porcelain, shells, pinecones, nuts and bolts, wild boar teeth, aluminum foil, pasta, rice… They are serious, elegant, elaborate, and silly. Some are humorous: a terracotta Mary from Campania is totally fagged out and asleep while Joseph holds the baby. Some are sobering, like a scene set in Iraq, with tanks, soldiers, bombed out houses, barbed wire, and several guns lying at the foot of the manger. Another is fanciful, set inside a big mushroom; the slugs and snails are bigger than baby Jesus. It’s absolutely enchanting.
Italy 10: Rome
I take a taxi to the Borghese Gardens. I think that Roman taxi drivers can’t possibly be as scary as they say. No, they aren’t. They’re worse. It’s one of the most frightening things I’ve ever done. This guy is careening through Rome, screeching to stops, zooming off again, driving on the wrong side of the road, yelling at people, honking nonstop, and narrowly missing little old ladies and children who are trying to cross the road. A nightmare. After that, I walk.
I go to a weird and fascinating place called the Capuchin Crypt, where one of the monks, a long time ago, decorated six little underground chapels with all sorts of delicate and pretty designs, arabesques, loop the loops, and arches, all made out of human bones…the jawbones, femurs, pelvises, skulls, and vertebrae of 3700 of his fellow monks. Even the chandeliers are made of bones.
There is a little sign in the middle of all the old bones: “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.”
Italy 11: Rome
Snapshots of Rome: an old lady hobbling down the road with a cane, wearing a purple down jacket and a leopard skin hat; listening to a choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus in the Pantheon; the fountain of Trevi, an exuberance of blue and white, water and horses and men plunging, rearing, and whirling; the anguished expression on the face of Bernini’s Medusa in the Capitoline Museum (what it would be like to watch everyone I looked at turning to stone?); the magnificent statue of Marcus Aurelius in front of the museum, with a pigeon perched on his head and white pigeon poo dribbling down his handsome bronze face; enormous marble wings in the museum on the Palatine Hill that look like real honest-to-god feathers; a pair of custom made Jimmy Choo “Cinderella” shoes in a store window, all covered in Swarovski crystals and costing $3500; people laughing nervously as they stick their hands into the Mouth of Truth, hoping their fingers won’t be bitten off; bags of pasta in the Campo de’ Fiori market in every possible shape, including Stars of David. At dusk there are hundreds and thousands of birds (a murmuration of starlings!) over the Tiber, big black swoopy elastic clouds of them. The sidewalks and cars along the river are covered with a layer of slippery bird poo. Although the weather is perfectly clear, people are using umbrellas to walk home from work.
Italy 12: Rome
I spend a day at the Vatican Museums. The Sistine Chapel is larger than I expect. I am mystified why Michelangelo would make God’s bum such a focus of attention in the panel called “Creating the Sun and Moon.” It’s right there. It looks like he’s wearing droopy drawers. I can’t figure it out.
I am struck by a large painting of the Garden of Eden by Wenzel Peter. It’s idyllic, lush, detailed, filled with colorful animals and birds. He paints it at the moment when Eve is giving Adam the apple. I know that I’m supposed to feel anger and disgust at her for being disobedient and getting us thrown out of paradise, but instead I feel something different. I feel her yearning to know, her hunger for deeper truths and wider experience. She is not satisfied with an easy, superficial life. She wants the kind of strength that has been challenged and tested by fire, has made sacrifices, has faced painful choices, and has overcome temptation. She yearns for the kind of goodness that comes from tested experience and self-knowledge, not just imagining the choices she’d make, but having to face the challenges and make real choices. She wants authentic integrity, honesty, peace, and faith. Some of us are content with easy, comfortable lives, and some of us want to test ourselves, to know who we really are, what we’re made of, and how far we can go. Some of us go looking for apples.
Italy 13: Rome
Inside St. Peter’s Basilica I spend a long time in front of The Pieta, because at first it really irritates me. I can’t imagine a mother looking so peaceful while holding the broken body of her son. I think, Michelangelo obviously knows nothing of what that would feel like. How dare he reduce such a thing to this bittersweet calm? I am revolted by his youth and his arrogance. But I stay with it. Eventually something shifts, and I see something different. I see a mother who has deeply accepted this unacceptable death, who is enduring her unendurable grief, and without denying it has moved through it into a rare and exquisite communion with God. I feel like she has opened her heart and let me in.
How could this be? Michelangelo was only 25 years old.