Fellows, Heroes, and Senses

Sue, me, and Bon at NIAUSI Friends & Fellows event

Last night, I saw my first SIFF film of this year’s series, “Perfect Sense,” which stars Ewan McGregor as a chef who falls in love with an epidemiologist at the beginning of a inexplicable worldwide plague. Following processional fits of emotional despair, savage hunger, and intense, destructive bursts of anger, people across the world begin to lose their senses one by one: first smell, then taste, followed by hearing, and sight.

Standing in line at the Egyptian, tucked below an eave that caught most of the sprinkling rain, I wondered if the programming staff had purposefully coordinated the screening of this film on the same day as the so-called Rapture. As several of us noted our luck at remaining on Earth long enough to catch the flick—and, thus, our apparent sinfulness—I wondered what all of those believers would do next, having not magically disappeared.

Perhaps a timely sense-robbing end-of-days plague might actually seem like a relief—tangible evidence of God and a justification for renouncing their jobs, their savings, and their preparedness for the future.

Though the film contained several themes worth exploring, one that resonated with me most was the endurance and adaptability of the human spirit, in spite of losing everything that permits us to fully experience life—the very senses that we take for granted, and that dull with age.

As the film’s victims lose their sense of smell and quickly abandon restaurants, chefs create spicier, more intense dishes; eventually people gather at tables again. As taste is taken, chefs add texture and sound to their gastronomic experiments; their dishes are rated by mouth feel and by the audibility of crunchiness.

As hearing is lost, so is speech, yet the ability to touch one other and communicate through sign language and the written word takes over. In spite of alternating waves of misery and coping, people find small pockets of contentment and even hope in simple sensations: the feel of skin on skin, the orange brilliance of a sunset.

At the end of the movie, before sight disappears, those afflicted experience a rush of happiness and thanksgiving: a flood of pure, grateful love that allows the viewer to savor whatever is before her, making that final picture the last and most dear thing she’ll ever see.

Then, the screen goes permanently black.

It made me wonder if there was something that I could see (or smell, taste, hear, feel) that would sustain me if all else was lost—a defining encounter with enough beauty to span a lifetime, if my senses were fed by nothing else.

Without a doubt, Civita is that experience for me. Nine months later, I still reflect on my time there, reliving segments of my life there as if they happened an hour ago.

Sometimes, I close my eyes and find myself walking up the bridge, feeling the steep stones under my sandals as I step up, and up, and up like a mountain goat. Other times, I can feel the sun-baked heat of my writing rock beneath me as I recline, and the gentle lapping of hilltop wind through my hair.

I hear the Sunday church bells clanging with sonorous power, a reverberation so strong that it seems they’ll never stop pealing. It’s followed by the smell of eggplant parmigiana baking in Tony’s oven, the taste of wine and cognac in my mouth before bed, the delicious weight of Italian words like meraviglioso (try it: mare-ah-veel-YO-zo) rolling over my lips, the soft warmth of Nerone’s fur, and the press of his paw pads as he kneads my thighs while sitting in my lap.

It’s the feel of linking arms with Josè in Civita, Iole in Venezia, and Helen in Orvieto as we walk and talk like the Italian women do. It’s the sound of Tony calling me “dear” as he reads an article though his magnified lenses, smiling broadly as he shares something he finds interesting or ridiculous. It’s the feeling of sunshine tiptoeing into my bedroom in Il Nuovo at dawn, warming my eyelids before I wake.

It’s also the feeling I had on Friday night as I presented my book at the Friends and Fellows event, the culmination of a year and a half’s work. After hearing about the projects completed by my fellow Fellows, Lara, Robert, and Perri, I realized how true the metaphor of The Hero’s Journey is to a NIAUSI Fellow’s experience—and the source of its profundity.

We Fellows leave everything behind—our homes, our friends, our jobs, the world of the familiar—to embrace the unknown; we arrive in Civita to find challenges and temptations the likes of which we had never anticipated. We adapt, we improvise, we create, we struggle—and at some point, the person who we arrived as no longer exists and a new person is born.

We aware and awake, able to perceive the arrival of our newborn selves, even if the understanding of these new identities are not yet complete. I liken it to that last-look moment of the film—a slice of time in which we feel only utter beauty, and are ever-grateful for the capacity to experience it.

It’s something so big that it’s impossible to digest in a month, or a year; to understand it truly takes a lifetime.

That feeling of thrall is what endures. It provides the film upon which we imprint a roll of memories to bring back; it’s what magnetically draws us to examine, re-examine, and relive our adventure long after we’ve returned.

At the moment we stand before the NIAUSI congregation to share the boon of our journey, we become masters of two worlds. We carry with us those sense memories of Civita past alongside new powers; the way we taste, touch, feel, hear, and inhale the world around us is forever altered. Our brains have been rewired to distill the human experience in a language previously unknown.

The death of that former identity—much like the stripping away of sense after sense—has shown me that it’s not about losing what once was, but about cultivating a deeper appreciation and sensitivity in how we experience the world after our return to the known.

Since it seems that we’ll remain on Earth a bit longer, I plan to make my time here into a long, worthwhile last look, exploring the world with unsinkable optimism—rapture, even—and a newborn spirit of discovery, even in simple things.

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