Now in my period of readjustment, I’ve begun reading “Four Seasons in Rome,” by Anthony Doerr, whose experience and reflections on Rome are not unlike my literary exploration of Civita.
During my first day back to work, when asked to compose something thoughtful about my firm’s waterfront home for our holiday card, I reflected upon Doerr’s words: “Leave home, leave country, leave the familiar. Only then can routine experience –buying bread, eating vegetables, even saying hello– become new all over again.”
Faced with this assignment months ago, I would have been incapable of applying the perspective I brought yesterday. First, I considered with fresh senses what it was like to walk along the waterfront for the first time in over two months — the longest I’ve gone without smelling the ocean for the past nine years.
I listened for the sounds unique to waterfronts: gulls calling at each other as they hang suspended in wet air, the blasts of ferries in motion echoed by the honks of cruise vessels. Ours is a working waterfront, which means a tapestry of multi-modal traffic: busses, bikes, and cars speeding in both directions, freight vessels delivering goods loaded by huge orange cranes onto rail cars, and bicycle messengers weaving in and out of lumbering tourist crowds.
What I’ve come to take for granted is actually a unique experience now reborn for me after my life in a small Italian hill town. As much as I’ve struggled with not only leaving Civita but embracing Seattle again, this moment reminded me how those first few days felt when I moved here in 2001.
Yet, as Doerr writes, “The easier an experience, or the more entrenched, or the more familiar, the fainter our sensation of it becomes. This is true of chocolate and marriages and hometowns and narrative structures. Complexities wane, miracles become unremarkable, and if we’re not careful, pretty soon we’re gazing out at our lives as if through a burlap sack.”
This throbbing fear bruised the insides of my ribcage as I prepared to return to Seattle a few weeks ago. Leaving Civita was traumatic in and of itself, but there was more to it. I knew that I was returning to a place that had become grotesquely familiar for me; I was afraid of being trapped in that burlap sack again. Civita was a warm, sunny, foreign place where I discovered a new part of myself…whereas I was returning to a very familiar darkness of the town I knew, and the person I had been.
As I scheduled catch-up dates today, I reveled in telling stories to co-workers, one of whom said, “I’m sorry to ask; you must be tired of talking about this!”
One friend made a point of wanting to catch up before the golden bubble of experience bursts and the magic seeps out. Yet, I’m still very much in that bubble — a sunny space inside my mind, I suppose you could call it love, where I can clearly recall how my brain felt, how my skin felt, and how my heart felt while I was away. Even as I wake in the dark at 5 am and return home at dusk, I can conjure enough power to invoke that yolky Lazio light — and the evolved mental state that I found in it.
I consider myself quite lucky. The nature of my fellowship project –a book focused specifically on my immersion– will allow me to keep the spark of memory alive for years. Rereading my essays will be like finding a shred of a long-gone baby blanket in a moving box as an adult. You may not remember when you first owned it, but inhaling the smell and feeling that soft, mangled scrap against your face can transport you to your childhood in an instant.
In that way, the layers of memory from both Civita and Seattle will retain a special magic for me throughout my life. Over time as I travel between them, I will rediscover one place and then the other. The first steps of each return will deliver a rich resonance, like reading a favorite passage in a well-loved book, or inhaling the scent of a loved one –or the ocean– after a long absence.
Thus, I see how meaningful it will be to continue chronicling my life’s adventures and the thoughts and struggles they inspire within me. Commemorating these journeys –and the changes that take place within me along the way– will more deeply entrench these beloved cities on my heart, and –I hope– inspire readers to travel with me in spirit, if not in body.
After all, there is too much love held within the experience of a life for merely one person to enjoy; the richness of these deep encounters is meant to be shared as a rejuvenating call to others.
About this, Anthony Doerr and I are in agreement: “A good journal entry –like a good song, or sketch, or photograph– ought to break up the habitual and lift away the film that forms over the eye, the finger, the tongue, the heart. A good journal entry ought to be a love letter to the world.”