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On Traveling and Quitting
Grumpiness, bad lighting, transformation and hot springs
There was a point a few weeks into my Drawing I classes when I had my students put away their erasers as a way to encourage their creative spontaneity and release them from the strangle of perfectionism. Including a full record of their process, mistakes and all, made many of them extremely uncomfortable, and I’d often catch kids surreptitiously erasing when they thought I couldn’t see them.
As I tried to write this post, committing all kinds of creative crimes: erasing, writing, erasing, revising, erasing, editing and abandoning draft after draft, I found myself returning to that simple exercise. The power in it lies in the restraint it requires—allowing for the messiness in the process of creation to be made visible. It’s an incredibly vulnerable way to work, demanding a conscious and continuous rejection of preciousness and a willful embrace of mistake-making as a path towards solutions.
This is where you find me, dear reader, somewhere in the messy middle (aren’t we always in the messy middle?), trying valiantly to create a tidy little narrative out of the chaos, looking for perfection and order where there simply is none. It’s no wonder that I keep struggling and failing. So, in the spirit of leaving all the marks visible, I give you this post: a hodgepodge of the profound and stupid, spontaneous and considered.
A random list of things that moved me during the past week:
A man with a beautiful red scarf tied jauntily around his neck crouched on scaffolding under a low roof, painting a windowsill.
The accumulated stench of one million lagoon farts trapped inside the locker room of the library.
Fields of yellow mustard: electric, pulsing, blinding.
Old Italian men in navy blue puffy jackets, barrel chests forward, penguining their way through St Mark’s.
Driving through the Val d’Orcia in Tuscany listening to Phillip Glass.
We just got back from a road trip through Tuscany for Cleo’s Easter (Pasqua) break. I planned the trip around visiting the natural hot springs in the area, hoping that a few days spent flopping around in thermal mud and hot water might balance out the visits to museums and other sites of historical, social or artistic significance that are somewhat torturous for Cleo.
The hot springs were sublime, if not a little more crowded than the ones we’re used to in the Western US (goddamn we are lucky). The first we visited, Petriolo, had a European hippie (white dreads) meets European family (very specific shoes and Quechua backpacks) meets European nudist (naked old men) community vibe. In other words: We liked it!
The second, Bagno San Filippo, was visually arresting and otherworldly, and we managed to score the best pool to cook ourselves in for a couple of hours. Unfortunately, the baths became uncomfortably crowded after everyone returned from lunch to soak, so we grudgingly vacated our spots and bounced.
Spending time in those waters, feeling the mud squishing between my toes and allowing the earth to completely envelope me felt both healing and necessary. It is one thing to see the lagoon every day, to watch the schools of fish navigating the canals, listen for the songbirds that have returned in the past month, observe the seagulls and pigeons and their incredible adaptability and persistence, and another thing to immerse yourself fully in the natural world. I miss digging in our garden. I miss the moss, the forests, the scent and the drama of the Pacific ocean. I long for the overwhelming vastness of the American West; I miss it in a bodily way.
Walking around the absurdly picturesque medieval village of Brisghella on Easter morning— wisteria blooming, tiny leaf buds burgeoning on grape vines, the chartreuse vibration of new growth all around—Cleo kept bringing up the feeling of backpacking through Indian Heaven Wilderness in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. How all she wanted was to be back there, picking wild blueberries and chanterelles, swimming in alpine lakes and sleeping under clear mountain skies. She’s not convinced that castles, frescoes, old churches, ancient vineyards and museums compare.
In the spirit of emotionally detaching from a place two thirds of our family doesn’t want to leave, we are focusing on our grievances and making lists of the things that suck about living here. Be forewarned these are highly inflammatory statements about very stupid things. Forget neo-fascism, crushing bureaucracy and croneyism, abuses of the Catholic Church, declining birth rates and overtourism, these are the true issues that need to be tackled in Italy post haste.
I give you…
SHITALY: A list of our extraordinarily petty grievances.
The lighting. The future of LED lighting has arrived in Italy and whooooweee does it look terrible! It seems as though every interior is too bright, too grey or too something unnameable and wrong. It’s uncomfortable and weird and we all look horrible under its eery luminescence. Andy and I have even taken to sort-of-joking about traveling with our own light bulbs. Here’s an article that explains the why of it.
The bread & the baked goods. Yup, I said it. It’s difficult to find a quality loaf of bread here (focaccia excluded). Most bread reminds me of the Safeway French bread I used to buy for a buck a loaf in high school. It’s fine in a pinch, but really? And don’t even get me started about the saltless bread in Tuscany. I mean, I get the historical precedent: salt wars, salt taxes, salty food that makes up for the lack of flavor in the bread, but give me a break. WHAT IS THE POINT? Put the past behind you and put some goddamn salt in your bread. And the pastries, well, I’ll just spare you the point-by-point takedown and say that the French do it better. Much better. Commence WWIII.
Dog shit. For a germ obsessed people, Italians are alarmingly nonchalant and flippant about dog shit. You cannot touch the produce here, but you can let your dog poop all over the place all the time. It’s confounding! And gross! We’ve taken to referring to the wide variety of shits smeared across the walkways as the artwork of the “sick dogs of Venice” and the “sick dogs of Murano.” There is very little grass on these islands, but you can be sure that if you do find a nice little patch to sit in, or kick a soccer ball around on, you will also find one hundred dog shits.
No rugs/cold floors. Maybe the reason the Italians don’t use rugs is because they are constantly having to clean dog shit off their tile and terrazzo floors? Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of terrazzo, but, it is frigid. I feel like this is a vestige of Catholic masochism, of suffering because you’ve always suffered, not because you need to at this point. Plus, we all know that rugs tie the room together.
The use of plastic. Italians wrap things beautifully and excessively. This is mostly excusable and aesthetically pleasing when the package is wrapped in paper or fabric. But when it comes to plastic, my god, their devotion to the medium is unnerving. I feel as though I am constantly begging someone to not give me a plastic bag inside another plastic bag, or peeling away layers of saran wrap. The city has water flowing from fountains everywhere, and yet, you cannot get tap water at a restaurant — instead you have to order it, and it usually comes in a plastic bottle. It maddens me.
Pizza. I am almost afraid to put this in writing, but…I haven’t had a truly great slice of pizza in Italy. I’ve had really good pizza in Naples and Rome, but nothing even remotely close to what you can get in the states. Heresy, I know. Wood fires are banned in Venice so that explains the dearth of quality slices here, but it does not excuse the poor execution elsewhere. I think they are resting on their laurels.
Bad plumbing fixtures, small showers and weird toilets. Italian design is either the best or the worst, there doesn’t seem to be much of a middle ground. The bathroom is where this discrepancy is most stark. We’ve stayed in a lot of different houses, apartments and hotels at this point, and the bathrooms are almost all universally disappointing. The flow is wrong, the layouts are confused and the fixtures are just trash. And the showers, where do I begin? The tiny size that does not correlate to the size of the rest of the bathroom? The lack of shelves? Their weird fascination with shower gel over soap? (Can someone explain this to me?) Thank god for the ubiquity of Italian bidets, otherwise their bathrooms would be wholly irredeemable.
Not smiling. Americans get a bad rap for being falsely friendly and smiling too much. The opposite of this is a culture of people constantly giving you the stink eye and subjecting you to their ice cold stares. The nonnas are the worst. Their looks could drop a moose in its tracks. I may smile like an idiot, and have lots of wrinkles to show for this apparently “ridiculous” behavior, but I also like the feeling of sharing and receiving warmth, kindness, interest and compassion. Plus, how the hell are you supposed to flirt with the world when you have to look serious and expressionless all the time? Shooting lasers out of your eyeballs is neither sexy nor fun and I am not a fan.
While we travel the three of us trade off in our periods of grumpiness. All of us have the capacity to go silent and sulky, festering in our own displeasure and ruining the experience for the other two. When we are hungry, cold, tired, or need to pee, we become short tempered and/or stubborn, resisting the pleasure and possibility of whatever is in front of us.
For the most part it’s almost impossible to not be swept up in the awesomeness of this place (in spite of our shitty moods). We’ll procure something delicious to eat, make friends with a cute cat or dog, stumble upon a breathtaking landscape or encounter something so bizarre that it will jolt us out of our self-indulgent funks and put us back on track for presence and enjoyment in the moment.
We weave in and out of compatibility and ease.
Andy will visit every possible church and museum and LOVES an instructional kiosk. He will walk forever without ever getting tired or bored, always seeking to find his “ewer of gold coins” that may be hidden in the mud or in the grasses just over there. He is constantly wandering off, and Cleo and I are constantly asking each other, “Where is he?”
Cleo can be bribed with gelato and candy to do most things. She would prefer to not go to churches, likes visiting museums about a third of the time for a third of the time, will hike after complaining briefly, and is always game to go shopping. She adores the ubiquitous Danish store Flying Tiger (kind of like Ikea for kids), Scout (the Italian Urban Outfitters) and grocery stores with good snacks. She likes to sit in the sun listening to music and drawing in her sketchbook most of all.
I like to mix it up. I can do one museum and one church in a day, but that’s usually my max. I like to pop into all kinds of shops and try all the food all the time. I also like to sit places and people watch, preferably with a beverage of some kind in my hand. I can walk forever, but I do get tired, and if I need to pee and I can’t find a bathroom (nature peeing is out of the question here) I get crazed and mean and cannot function. I have a propensity to strike up conversations with strangers, and this increasingly confounds and embarrasses Cleo.
If there is an opportunity to swim, we are all at our happiest.
Most of the time we make a great travel team. We are learning how to argue well, how to apologize for our inevitably terrible behaviors and also figuring out how and when to take space from one another. Still, we are a closed system of three. And even though we are always seeking out the new and the novel, it all feels too insular and too lonely to sustain for an extended period of time. We need community.
That’s why the arrival of our dear friends, Tracy and Adila was so cathartic. For 10 days we folded them into our lives, sharing our favorite places in Venice and traveling together around the Veneto. To wake up and drink coffee and talk for hours with one of your best friends, to watch your daughter and her closest friend in the world reunite; hugging, laughing, crying and resuming their lifelong friendship right where they left off, was the grounding we all needed. To be known and understood is a gift.
I’m in the trenches of a huge professional transition that’s been far more emotional and intense than I could have anticipated. I’ve spent a great deal of my time here engineering my emotional and logistical exit from teaching, wrestling with the grief of leaving my job and discarding (putting aside?) a huge piece of my identity.
Even though I know that I was a damn good teacher and that in many ways I really loved my job, working in public schools over the past few years traumatized me.
Hours of my days are now devoted to trying to figure out what will come next. How will I parlay my skills into something meaningful that also pays enough money to cover a mortgage and a life built on a foundation of a solid paycheck and benefits? It feels risky as hell to walk away from the stability, but the wise part of me—the part that isn’t as fearful and focused on scarcity—knows it’s the right choice to make.
The last time I felt like this was when I was 21 and trying rather unsuccessfully to leave an abusive relationship. I decided to spend the winter quarter during my senior year of college on an ornithology field study in Belize and Guatemala as a way to put space between me and the boyfriend whom I’d been unable to extricate from my life during the previous 3 years. I had no specific interest in birds, but I did know that I needed to be immersed in an environment where I’d be able to get quiet enough to summon the bravery to make that necessary decision.
Now here I am, across a continent and an ocean, trying valiantly to listen to the voice of my 21-year-old self reminding me that I am going to be ok.
The signs seem to be everywhere.
Last week, while swimming laps at the community pool in Sant Alvise, I experienced the uncomfortable sensation of anticipating the exact moment when my formerly-sort-of-elegant, non-lap-swimming swimsuit would simply quit. The elastic around my chest and ass had begun to mimic the current of the water as I swam—flapping rhythmically and dragging a bit more with every stroke.
I should have brought a Speedo with me on this trip, or simply bought one in the fall when I resumed my regular swim workouts. Instead, I chose to wear my inappropriate suit to the pool throughout the year, sacrificing it to the chlorine and miles and miles of laps, cataloguing its saggy, slow disintegration with curiosity and no action. What a tidy little metaphor, I thought to myself as I contemplated whether or not my left breast was totally exposed: the suit is doing its best to peel away from my body like a snake sloughing off its skin.
Before we leave I will throw that swimsuit away.
And that’s it for now. As always, thank you for taking the time to read these dispatches. If you’re feeling it, don’t hesitate to share with a friend.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver may be the best book I’ve read all year. It’s a masterpiece. No notes.
This conversation between Krista Tippett and Rick Rubin is really special. I listened to it twice in a row.
I also read The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty, and Still Life by Louise Penny. The Rabbit Hutch was beautifully written and I remember finishing it and being impressed, and then forgetting it completely after it was eclipsed by Demon Copperhead. I read Still Life after Demon Copperhead knowing that I needed a bridge book, and that a well-written mystery might be the ticket. I get the appeal of Penny’s writing, it’s cozy with well-drawn characters and a compelling and complicated protagonist, but genre fiction—mysteries in particular— aren’t really my thing. Still, it did the trick.
I think I laugh more watching Succession than any other show. (Broad City might be the exception.) I am so glad it’s back. I am 100% into the idea of the cousin Greg/Tom spinoff. Here’s a great read about the last episode (major spoiler alert).
This article, “Living in Adoption’s Emotional Aftermath” by Larissa MacFarquhar in the New Yorker is a complex, fascinating and heart wrenching read.
Apparently Italian schools don’t teach about puberty and health in 6th grade. To supplement this hole in the curriculum (and much to Andy’s horror) I introduced Cleo to the show Big Mouth. She devoted herself to it a way that I can only describe as committed and fanatical. There is a new light in her eye when she talks about it. It feels a bit like when I discovered Judy Blume’s Forever and brought it to school every day for weeks in order to share the very important information (Ralph! IYKYK) it contained with all my friends on the playground during lunch.
And, the palette cleanser…
I keep coming back to this quote by writer, artist and experimental violinist Stephen Nachmanovitch that I read in the wonderful, long-running blog The Marginalian:
Faithfulness to the moment and to the present circumstance entails continuous surrender. Perhaps we are surrendering to something delightful, but we still have to give up our expectations and a certain degree of control — give up being safely wrapped in our own story. We still engage in the important practice of planning and scheduling — not to rigidly lock in the future, but to tune up the self. In planning we focus attention on the field we are about to enter, then release the plan and discover the reality of time’s flow. Thus we tap into living synchronicity.
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