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Frankincense and Oranges

TUSCANY. I T A L Y

We stopped at the public spring to fill our glass bottles with water whilst the old mans slobbery dog ran around like an unruly monster, rolling around in the dust, drinking from the pool of spring water then shaking and spraying us with a mixture of water and saliva. I’m definitely more of a cat person, I thought.

We got back in the car, Gos barking in excitement, as he knew what came next: a walk through the forest and up to the monastery. Again, we walked in relative silence. I tried to comment on this and that, making small talk, mentioning the trees and the view. Asking which villages were in the distance. I was happy it was warm and that I was getting some exercise. The old man had remarked before we left the house that I would not be able to walk up the hill in my sandals but with every step, I proved him wrong, overtaking him and waiting for him at various intervals. I was strong. I had walked all over India for six months in those sandals. Do you think a 30-minute walk up a small hill is beyond my scope of capability without proper walking shoes?

We got up to the monastery and I was eager to look at the architecture and peek inside the church. The old man said he wasn’t fond of Baroque architecture so he and Gos stayed outside whilst I climbed the stairs and into the sanctuary. Sunday mass was just coming out and there was an energy of peace surrounding the entrance as I entered. The Baroque interior was gorgeous and a heavy veil of frankincense smoke hovered in the air.

The smell reminded me of my childhood and Catholic mass. My mother wanted us to go every Sunday and my sister and I would sit in the pew, bored out of our minds. I looked forward to communion when there was some movement and we could get up and have the ‘body and blood of Christ’ and I could give my knees a rest from all the kneeling. I loved when the priest and altar boys would walk down the aisle with the burning frankincense. That was my favorite part; being enveloped in the sweet and pungent smoke.

I sat in a pew and said a short prayer, knowing that the old man was waiting. Usually, on visits like this, I’m on my own and I like it that way. I can take as long or as short a time as I want. I can sit and stare at the artwork on the ceiling and the sculptures on the altar and watch the light as it passes through the stained glass windows, with no urgency to leave. I don’t like to be waited for or to wait on anyone else. Traveling alone has ruined me in this regard. Very seldom do I like to travel with others, especially inexperienced travelers. It’s extremely frustrating for me. I feel like a bird that’s had its wings clipped. My pace is severely hindered. I’m selfish with my freedom and I make no apology for that.

I made the sign of the cross with a half kneel, walked down the aisle and out of the huge wooden doors and back down the stairs to meet Gos and the old man and we all walked back down the hill. The old man handed me the lead with Gos at the end of it. I was not impressed.

“This is your dog”, I thought. “Not mine”.

If he was trained properly it would be a different story but this Gos is unruly and disobedient and meanders all over the place, pulling whoever is leading him wherever he wishes.

Back in the car, Gos and his excited signature bark accompanied us down the meandering hill. I was relieved and excited too, although I knew we’d have another pasta dinner and my belly was starting to look and feel like a bulging beach ball. This was not going to be a sustainable diet for me. I needed to investigate the fresh produce markets once back in Florence and I was counting down the days until my return.

Of course, I’d miss this little world in the hills, in the stone house. One of those houses that you always see when you’re traveling and wonder what they’re like inside. Well…they have heavy wooden shutters, inside and out, complicated latches on the windows that can be quite tricky to figure out at first. They have stone stairs and floors, and uneven walls, and they can be quite cool in the mornings. If you use too many appliances the electricity will go out and it’s quite a puzzle to figure out how to fix it.

In the mornings I woke up to opera, birds and spring blossoms, and squeezed Sicilian blood oranges for the old man every day. We would sit quietly, each in our own worlds, trying to communicate when we could, over sweet biscuits in the morning or raw fava beans and pecorino cheese in the evenings.

I realize that my time there was an exercise in listening to energy when you can’t understand words. I realize how I want to please and how I wanted to be liked and understood and in those moments when words were useless and the old man was stern and frustrated, I learned to be OK with the silence. To be comfortable in my skin, in this foreign land, in this foreign home with this foreign old man.

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Surrendered

FLORENCE, I T A L Y

Strong – I’ve lived, I’m living, for the first time, for the millionth time.

Remembering, forgetting, letting go, calling in the treasure.

Opening, unfolding, dripping from the sky. Flowering from the earth if I stay close enough to her.

Closer

Not closed but opening, in her strength and her softness – my strength, my softness.

Allowing her to love me, to hold me.

I open my hands. I receive and I must give back.

I’m sorry to have held on so tightly. I’m sorry I haven’t let you give to me. I have overwhelmed myself with my own control, my own fear. I have closed my doors because of all the hurt. I have kept a box of steel in my belly. No room for the light to get in. No room for the seeds to germinate. Seeds that have turned to stone.

I think I have caught it just in time.

The sound of thunder wakes me up from the dream. The wetness of the rain, makes holes in the worn rusty exterior, causing cracks where the warmth can enter.

I remember now.

When the fire rises in the snow and melts into the heart of me. In between the beats that keep me here whilst you may slip away

And I hold my breath until I realize I’m here and my wings can unfurl and I am free as much as I am rooted and I take you with me no matter what.

Even though the melted snow may drown me, my tears will cleanse away the longing for anything different. The fighting, the pushing, the need for lightness.

So I sit in the heaviness, in the cave of darkness until it becomes comforting like a velvet blanket wrapped around me.

Perishing in the earth – I’ve seen these ashes before – life-giving for flowers to flourish, for life to return and take many forms.

            Triumphant, somber

                        Shade and ocean breeze

                                    Fireflies in the midnight sky

An ocean that breathes along with my inhale as I exhale the parts of me that resist.

Allowing tears to fall at my feet and sink into the roots that hold me up and allow the silver halo of my being to travel with me…

To you, to me, and back again.

I have surrendered.

Untethered

THE JOURNEY BETWEEN HERE AND THERE

There was only one thin thread holding me there: love. The love of a man who was not in love with me and was not right for me.

I knew it in my bones but I persisted anyway. He was my last attempt, or maybe my last excuse to stay in a place that was not ideal for me and hadn’t been for a very long time. When that fine thread disintegrated, the anchor that was already near the surface of my ocean, broke and there was no sinking down again.

I shudder when I look back on the years of wasted time, trying so hard to make it work. Grasping. Pulling myself up a steep hill and never reaching the summit. Barely even making it far enough for a decent view. Constantly walking, sometimes crawling, through the desert that was California. A valley of tears, that sucked me dry.

It was always love that had led me away or to something. Usually the love for a man, sometimes a job, or simply the freedom to escape, to travel – a new discovery in a foreign land. That, after all, was my first love. 

Finding myself in an airport was natural and just seemed to happen throughout my life, from the moment I went on my first journey. Always at certain junctures in my life. Endings, beginnings, times for expansion. Space to untether myself from heartbreak or confusion. To get lost on purpose in an unknown land. To embrace myself and the warrior in me. My free spirit gleefully flying across the skies. I never once regretted spending money on a plane ticket. If it’s all I ever spent my money on, I was content.

So there I was, at another juncture, that I had created, looking back at all the doors that had slammed shut – collaborations, love affairs, homes, projects and attempts at creating something that resembled my version of a good life. A life I could be proud of. But it had all failed. One thing, after the next, until I believed I was a failure. The pathways in my mind, forging a deeper and deeper sense of shame with each passing year. I had to save myself. I had to pack it in, pack up and ship out.

They say that wherever you go, there you are and there’s a great deal of truth in that – whatever your inner state, so is your outer reality. I say, also, that your environment carries an aura that feeds into you, like osmosis, and affects your inner being.

I’ve always been sensitive to my surroundings – the weather, the aesthetics of the environment, the atmosphere, and the people. Plant me in a place with authentic souls, art, beauty and nature and I’ll grow like I was programmed to. Like a plant that needs air, light and warmth to survive. It’s simple. Why be so dedicated to the struggle when there are so many other options available? So many other gorgeous places to discover. As we get older we realize that time is of the essence. Someday, one day in the future becomes now. Not a moment too soon.

Here it was. The final hour. I was just about to cross the finish line and birth myself into another reality. The decision was made and it was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. Waking up each day to assess what was most precious and purging the rest. Waking up to the reality of the shift I was about to make. My life in the United States, unraveling behind me. Coming to terms with all the lifetimes I’d lived in the last 23 years – exactly half my lifetime, thus far.

I had to keep a steady focus on what was in front of me, leaving behind the what-ifs and the if-only’s. It was too late for those. I didn’t have any more time to waste. The task was clear and each moment was filled with hitting the target: October 3rd. A flight out of San Francisco, at 6:20 pm.

All my belongings had to be packed, sold, stored, or donated. I had to be ruthless in moments when I could have been nostalgic. I had to press on, placing one foot in front of the other. Making multiple trips to my storage unit and wading through what seemed to be an endless mountain of belongings and an endless exercise in figuring out what was staying and what was going.

Most of it had to go. The precious chairs I had bought at a little antique store in San Diego eight years before when the wide-eyed wonder of living in my 1920’s apartment overtook me with enthusiasm and hope. My rare jazz CDs and my sketchbooks. Artwork I had created and never sold. Trinkets I’d had for years from travel adventures. Things that ex-lovers had gifted me – in the donation pile they went. Things that evoked sadness, things that were old, things that seemed to belong to another lifetime, attached to memories I’d rather not take with me.

Four boxes – keep, throw away, donate, sell. I made gift packages for people, gave things away, arranged garage sales, listed things online. My days were consumed with organizational tasks. Listing Jamima – my 30-year-old Volvo – to be sold, and due to some miracle, she was. Working here and there when I could to make some extra cash. Making dates with people I would see one more time before departing. Packing my suitcases – one for summer and one for winter – for a journey that would take me to the southern hemisphere for three months and the northern for…who knew how long? Books, essential oils, sage, a couple of precious gemstones, my camera, a deck of oracle cards, and my favorite clothes were coming with me.

The time drew more and more near until finally, I was standing in my friend’s living room four hours before my flight, surrounded by things that hadn’t yet been taken care of. Bless that woman for letting me leave with things undone. My vision board on her living room floor, my last donation items in a random box, a pair of suede moccasins I didn’t know what to do with, abandoned in the corner, soaked from running back and forth in the rain. My emotions were undone from exhaustion and from this moment finally arriving.

I had pushed and pushed for months on end, intending to tie it all up in a neat little bow, not wanting to burden anyone with any loose ends. But here I was and I had to give myself permission to leave these few things undone and accept my friend’s loving recognition of what this moment entailed. Knowing I had tried my absolute best. Knowing this was a huge deal. It was OK not to be a perfectionist in this particular moment.

And then, as in a weary dream: sanctuary – sitting on the plane. The few keep boxes stored in my friend’s basement and me, in the air with two suitcases. No more storage units, no more fitting all the puzzle pieces together or taking them apart. There were still going to be decisions that needed to be made but not for these next few hours. I could breathe, watch movies, write and dream.

Six months later, as I write this, sitting at a desk in a farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside, there is one suitcase in London and one with me. So many logistical decisions have had to be made since my departure. More diversions before I finally decided on a place to land. South Africa, England, Scotland, supposedly places I’d work and study and make the proper decision about where to be. Lugging those suitcases more times than I care to mention, up and down stairs, into airports, onto trains and buses. Accepting people’s help when it was offered, otherwise making it work the best I could. An enormous amount of energy to merely sidestep the right decision, any decision, about where I wanted to ultimately land up.

Sometimes a decision just has to be made and any inkling of inspiration followed. A dreamer I may be. An idealist, most of the time. Free as a bird, only encumbered by my own perceptions of the vision ahead.

I realize that sometimes freedom can have one more confused but having gratitude for that freedom and diving into one of those things that have passed through your dreams, things only someone who has this freedom can entertain for real, is a wide-open blessing. Choosing one of those one-day visions. Because if you don’t you would wonder ten or twenty years from now, what if, I had…?

Now, after the intense heat of South Africa, the cold rain of England, and the snow of Scotland, I wait in anticipation of warmer weather again when I can wear my summer clothes that I so carefully packed. To shed a layer and really be here. Here, in the land that I’ve envisioned living for so long. Here now, with another list of to-do’s. Things that seem like massive hurdles at this juncture:

Learn Italian

Make new friends

Search for a job

Find somewhere to live

Even amidst the doubt and the worry and the, what if this fails too?, maybe I could start by congratulating myself for my courage and strength in making it this far, as I walk down cobblestone streets, marveling at the grace, beauty and grandeur that surrounds me.