The Sacred Circle / Il Cerchio Sacro

The concept of a circle is both wholeness and a new beginning. The ancients considered circles to represent the idea and power of God, which we might describe as both infinite and divine.

Circles are drawn to define safe boundaries; to create places where one can enter and join something sacred and bigger than herself. Some may call this faith or religion, but last night –under the light of a full moon in Civita– we called it dance.

Coinciding with Astra’s birthday was a town fest featuring a locally-grown musician, Salvatore Archangel, who specializes in music…and interior remodeling. He and his family joined our large group for dinner at Osteria al Forno di Agnese where Josè and Marcella worked their collective magic as mistresses of ceremonies. Joining us were Gaia and Bernardo, Maria (a singer with fabulous style who divides her time between Roma and Civita), Father Marco, Tony, Iole, and my across-the-way neighbor, Nilde.

Very quickly, I felt alien amongst this group due to my limited (though growing) Italian language skills. In contrast with having dinner in Gaia and Bernardo’s home, where there was one conversation, last night was a social din — many conversations in quick Italian, all at once, demanding immediate reaction. I felt self-conscious when someone spoke to me, as they were often forced to unnaturally slow down, repeat themselves, and use descriptive hand gestures. (Now I know why Italians, whose dialects can be quite different from region to region, require their hands to speak!)

In all of this, I appreciated the no-nonsense way Nilde, sitting at my left, took ownership of me, referring to me as, “La Americana,” in a gruffly affectionate way. Upon me saying, “Preferisco vino rosso,” she reached over the other Italians to make sure that I had a decent splash before it was taken in the frenzy. She did the same with the food passed around: lightly battered and fried zucchini flowers, fried mozzarella with anchovy, shredded beef with arugula and pine nuts, and grilled eggplant. More? she’d ask; Perche no?! (Why not?!) I responded.

Apart from simple dialogue describing my family background and why I’m in Civita, I said little during dinner and was eager to escape to the piazza as the music began. As I exited the frenetic patio of the osteria, the first full moon of my stay loomed large in the sky. Believing I was amongst strangers, I stepped to take a quiet seat off to the side, but felt a flash of delight as Bernardo flagged me over for easy conversation that I could handle.

The next thing I knew, they were all there around me: gorgeous Maria in her yellow ombre dress; elegant Gaia in a floor-length summer gown; and Marcella unleashing that sweet, lusty laugh that said she was ready for a good time. Alessio, a young shoe designer from Florence, came by with plastic cups and jug wine, a necessary ingredient for any bacchanal.

I couldn’t keep from grinning when several women were inspired to line dance to a tune I can only describe as the Italian Chicken Dance. Song after song, Salvatore played for the Civitonici, joined by many tourists and visitors from Bagnoregio, who spun across the piazza, often in same-sex couples since women seem to outnumber men in both life expectancy and mobility.

Alessio promenaded with Alessandra, evoking transfixed stares from her sons, Ludivigo and Giovanni, while Marcella and Iole waltzed together with laughter, trying to decide who would lead. As I watched from my perch between Bernardo and Nilde on the long, stone bench in front of Peppone’s Bar, that feeling of quiet melancholy continued to whisper underneath the accordion music, You don’t quite fit here.

Without warning, Marcella took my hand and Maria’s at the beginning of the next song, turning us into a circle that grew quickly with Alessandra and Alessio, Iole and Gaia, and others who couldn’t help but join our circle dance. As if we were pagans, we reeled one way and then the other, our skirts flying about us like ceremonial robes. Alessio broke the circle to dance under the joined hands of Gaia and Alessandra, and we all followed suit into a snakelike conga line, turning wildly this way and that until we joined hands again to re-form the circle.

The more we laughed and the faster our perfect circle turned, the more vigorously Salvatore played, perhaps inspired by moon’s shining lunacy. We danced like this to more songs, until finally — panting, laughing, and spent — we collapsed for more wine to appreciate an ancient ceremony recreated in modern times.

After a nearly embarrassing moment with Father Marco (I thankfully realized in time to pull back from my path of what seemed like the customary double cheek kiss after our handshake), I bid everyone goodnight, finding countless warm embraces, hands to be held, and plenty of cheek kisses from my favorite familiar friends — and several new ones.

I realized that, in experiencing what the ancient Greeks called ekstasis and enthusiasmos during our dance, I began to better understand the true meaning –and sacred power– of a circle.

Inside that circle, I felt invited, like I belonged.
Inside that circle, we did not need language to communicate.
Inside that circle, we held hands without reservation.
Inside that circle, we found freedom of expression and the ability to make and break forms.
Inside that circle, 10 strangers became a single, unified idea that had no beginning or end.

Some people might call that divine.

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