I Don’t Have Any Money, But You’re Welcome to My Olives

My gaze remained fixed on Fernando’s swollen eyelids as he asked Bonnie-Mom and me if we wanted to hear the most beautiful 40-second poem in the world.

He caught us on Second Avenue as we made our way back to the car, discussing our zany encounter with Peter Miller at Suyama Space, our meal at Tavolata, and her idea for an art exhibition. Skinny, like he hadn’t eaten well in months, Fernando innately picked us out of the crowd: two laughing women with kind faces, and likely, compassionate wallets. His desire hung plainly in the air, How could they refuse me a dollar after I so politely introduced myself and asked their permission to recite my poetry?

Though he stumbled over his words after we gave him leave to begin, I appreciated his performance and certain turns of phrase. He wasn’t untalented. Yet, his calculated moves mid-ode made my Spider Sense tingle. From standing directly in front of us, he slunk predator-like to Bonnie’s side, “So that I can look in both of your eyes at the same time,” he explained.

I wondered if he was holding our attention so that an unseen partner could approach from behind to nick our purses. Or, I thought protectively, perhaps he was drawing closer and closer, soothing us with his words, in order to lay a hand on Bonnie.

Dressed all in black, he fought the persistent droop of his eyelids as he slurred tumbled words of love, beauty, and timelessness. I wondered how he had come to beg for money in Belltown, and what drugs he was on. His pupils were dull and lethargic; it seemed that he was looking through us even as he was looking at us.

It was no surprise when he finally hit us up for money, “or a beer,” as he finished his poem, to which Bonnie replied in her firm-but-warm mom voice, tinged with Brit, “I’m sorry, I haven’t any cash—but you’re welcome to my box of olives.”

Bonnie’s gentle way of swimming in the world has always charmed me. She didn’t see a potentially threatening drug addict tracking two women on the street, but an hapless, shabby, orphan-artist with bad teeth. She said matter-of-factly to me as we walked on, “Well, I told him at the start that I didn’t have any money! But I knew that those olives would come in handy…”

The olives were the only leftover from our dinner, during which we spoke of Civita and the impending delivery of my book proof on the 27th. I was surprised to hear that another NIAUSI Fellow who recently returned from Civita was finding it just as difficult to rejoin the “real” world as I’ve found it. Upon visiting her acupuncturist, the woman learned that her body was exhibiting physical symptoms of shock. She was still consumed with the sounds of the bells, the smell of the air, the feel of the tufa stone, the taste of the garden, the Lazio light. It was confusing and painful to be back in Seattle.

I felt a flood of relief at hearing this, as her reaction goes a long way to describing my own experience of the world after returning from this so-called paradiso. When a word like “shock” accurately describes one’s re-entry, I can see that the power of my Civita experience was actually a kind of trauma. My own healing process began with wrapping myself in the anesthesia of memory, followed by the painful stitching of past and present until—piano, piano—the transition from hazy remembrance to an altered reality finally came into being.

Upon waking from the past three months’ convalescence, I realized that, much like Fernando’s drug addiction has brought him low, Civita has ruined my life. Or, more accurately, my life as I knew it.

Some drugs alter a person’s brain chemistry, leading her to the most brilliant enlightenment when she’s high—followed by a dismal, thudding miasma as she comes down. The higher the highs become, so then the lows are lower—and her capacity to feel each end of the spectrum deepens. Whenever I look at the photo of Iole and me at the height of my adventure, I see the happiest expression that I’ve ever known to animate own face. It’s evident how unparalleled my Civita high became: when I was there, I could feel my neural pathways open up and make new connections, my embrace of freedom grow, my creativity soar.

Then, in October, I was cast out of paradise like Adam and Eve. Every day since, I’ve come to realize how hard it is to carry on a “normal” life—especially when I know that, like a line of coke, Civita is out there somewhere, promising blissful escape.

As with Adam and Eve, there is no such thing as unknowing. Once I tasted the apple of unbridled creative expression, there was no way to undo my awareness. My realization still comes in rhythmic bits, again and again, like the newfound heartbeat of a patient who has been shocked back to life.

It’s not all bad that the previous chapter has closed, but sobering myself from my Civita adventure to start the next one requires constant energy and willpower. Like physical therapy, at times, it’s exhausting.

My hands are still shaky with recovery as I learn to move, think, and exist in a fresh way; my muscle memory is constantly re-routing as I shape this newborn future. In unsure moments, I find myself looking back, if only to confirm that the path that led me here is inaccessible. Whatever paradise that lies ahead is located somewhere unexpected that I haven’t visited before and don’t yet know how to locate. The release of my book, my upcoming travels, the beginning of whatever I’ll write about next—these are future stops on this road not yet traveled.

A slight limp still hinders me as I step down the leaf-littered path, but I have a feeling that, with time, my gait will work itself out. If I keep my imagination warm and nourish those new mental pathways with opportunities for expression, I think I’ll recover from this trauma with keener senses, strength, and fortitude. Perhaps, if I’m lucky, I’ll retain that deeper capacity for both the highs and the lows—and a balanced appreciation for both.

Like coins for Charon or olives for Fernando, I’ll take a cue from Bonnie-Mom and always carry tokens for those I meet in passing from one world to the next.

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