return to venice

During a recent visit to Venice I felt a longing to return someday and spend more time, perhaps a month. Living as a local, I wanted to wander the narrow alleyways as if time were a luxury. Traveling the globe as a tourist is not my idea of experiencing the real face of a country. Doing so seems more like being on this side of the glass in an aquarium, observing underwater creatures swimming blithely through their sea world. With eyes wide, face pressed close, my imagination wanders, piercing the “barrier” separating me from them, be they natives of the sea or of the land. Momentarily, I’m one of them. Excitement lures me in, but fear of the unknown pulls me back into the comfort of my own skin. I envy those who can abandon themselves to what’s new, undeterred by the consequences. Like the “I Love Lucy” episode where she, wanting to “soak up local color” to prepare for a small part in an Italian movie, is drenched in grape juice when she wrestles with a villager in a vat of grapes. I’m up to scheming like Lucy, but lack her bravado in following through. What is it that holds me back? Is it my island mentality, older age, my husband’s antipathy for “dancing on the edge,” or my dysfunctional past? Whatever it is, I am fine living within this “moment.” But life has a way of changing things up, so I never say never.

A Thousand Days in Venice is the author’s story of her life-altering, middle-aged marriage to a Venetian. “He saw her across the Piazza San Marco and fell in love from afar. When he sees her again in a Venice cafe’ a year later, he knows it is fate. He knows little English; she, a divorced American chef, speaks only food-based Italian. Marlena thinks she is incapable of intimacy, that her heart has lost its capacity for romantic love. But within months of their first meeting, she has packed up her house in St. Louis to marry Fernando–“the stranger,” as she calls him–and live in that achingly lovely city in which they met.”

There are revealing moments in their relationship. When Fernando makes his first trip to America to see Marlena in St. Louis, she asks why the hasty visit, since she’d just arrived home a couple of days before. In response he explains that he was “…tired of waiting. I understand now about using up my time. Life is this conto, account,” said the banker in him. ‘It’s an unknown quantity of days from which one is permitted to withdraw only one precious one of them at a time. No deposits accepted. …I’ve used so many of mine to sleep. One by one, I’ve mostly waited for them to pass. It’s common enough for one to simply find a safe place to wait it all out. Every time I would begin to examine things, to think about what I felt, what I wanted, nothing touched, nothing mattered more than anything else. I’ve been lazy. Life rolled itself out and I shambled along sempre due passi indietro, always two steps behind. Fatalita, fate. Easy. No risks. Everything is someone else’s fault or merit. And so now, no more waiting,’ …”

Laughing until she cries at something he said, Fernando asks ‘And about those tears. How many times a day do you cry?’ Later Marlena’s thoughts return to his question, “Much of my crying is for joy and wonder rather than for pain. A trumpet’s waiting, a wind’s warm breath, the chink of a bell on an errant lamb, the smoke from a candle just spent, first light, twilight, firelight. Everyday beauty. I cry for how life intoxicates. And maybe just a little for how swiftly it runs.”

My daughter has said more than once that my tear ducts are intertwined with my heart-strings. My tears flow easily when she is ecstatic or unhappy, during old films, when listening to sad, or happy, news. I don’t think I cry as much as I laugh, but it probably runs a close second. During Mass yesterday, I braced myself for a hymn that always brings a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. “Be Not Afraid” had been a favorite of the pastor who presided over our 100-year-old church in Redding. He’d baptized our 5 month-old, walking her proudly down the aisle, showing her off to fellow parishioners.

Father Conlisk was a close family friend who dined with us regularly. During a visit I asked our toddler to go and find her father, in answer to which she readily climbed up onto the priest’s lap. One particular Christmas morning as we sat in the front pew at church, he asked her if she’d been visited by someone special. Without hesitation she showed him Dumbo the elephant, her new stuffed animal. He held it up for all to see; the congregation broke into peels of laughter.

When Father died as a result of lung cancer, I took our daughter to the funeral Mass at our small church and later, to one held in a larger church at a nearby parish. Both times I allowed her to stand just outside the pew, so she would have a better view of the proceedings. In preparation, I explained that Father Conlisk had gone to Heaven where he would be free from pain, and find happiness with God. We  followed others to the gravesite, where I showed our 5-year-old Father’s final resting place. I think she found closure because from then on, she seemed to accept his absence from our lives. Perhaps it also helped that we became good friends with the priest who replaced Father Conlisk.

So like Marlena, I tend to shed tears for “Everyday beauty…for how life intoxicates. And maybe just a little for how swiftly it runs.” What we may all have in common with the author is “this potentially destructive habit of mental record-keeping that builds, distorts, then breaks up and spreads into even the farthest flung territories of reason and consciousness. What we do is accumulate the pain, collect it like cranberry glass. We display it, stack it up into a pile. Then we stack it up into a mountain so we can climb up onto it, waiting for, demanding sympathy, salvation. ‘Hey, do you see this? Do you see how big my pain is?’ We look across at other people’s piles and measure them, shouting, ‘My pain is bigger than your pain.’ It’s all somehow like the medieval penchant for tower building. Each family demonstrated its power with the height of its own personal tower. One more layer of stone, one more layer of pain, each one a measure of power. I’d always fought to keep dismantling my pile, to sort and reject as much of the clutter as I could. Now, even more, I made myself look back straight into that which was over and done with, and that which would never be. I was determined to go to Fernando, and if there was to be some chance for us to take our story beyond this beginning, I knew I would have to go lightly. I was fairly certain the stranger’s piles would provide enough work for both of us.”

We all seem to emerge from childhood with “baggage.” Perhaps a lucky few escape, body, mind and spirit intact. But spending our adulthood living in the past, wastes what’s left of a good life. As we peel away the layers of yesterday’s disappointments, we make way for tomorrow’s possibilities. Better that we declutter, rather than hoard negative experiences simply to have someone, or something, to blame for our inability to cope or our downward spiral. The process may vary for there are probably as many paths toward resolution, as there are individuals in the world. One size doesn’t necessarily fit all. However the common denominator should be compassion and a positive attitude, toward oneself and others. We all deserve to live our best lives, going forward. Maybe when we disavow our mountains of past pain, we’ll be able to abandon our fears of the unknown, and…return to Venice. 

live our todays and tomorrows, never our yesterdays…hugmamma.

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a friendly place

Getting up for 8:15 Mass is a struggle. I’m not a morning person, as I’ve said in previous posts. So making it to exercise and church services is a labor of love, or else insanity, maybe both. The “drawing card” for me are the teachers, Kristina at the gym, and Father Brian at St. Joseph’s. Their common denominator is their compassionate, warm, “open” personalities. Neither basks in the limelight, rather they are humbly passionate about spreading their messages, Kristina “speaks” to exercise as essential for our well-being; Father Brian shares the gospel that God loves and cares for all of us.

Probably the youngest priest I’ve ever encountered as pastor of a parish, Father Brian, is a natural-born “shepherd.” He gathers his parishioners, his “sheep,” about him, with concern for our safe deliverance into the hands of God, our Maker. He doesn’t prod us with pokers, rather he relates stories, personal or biblical, which encourages us to think and to decide by what values we should live. The church fills with laughter when Father Brian tells a joke or humorous anecdote. He’s not even above pointing a finger at himself, whether in fun or to confirm that he too is human. His manner is easy, his smiles always forthcoming. He is accepting of ways that are different from his. If there are rules, and there must be, by which the parish operates, they do not seem “set in stone.” Perhaps his youthfulness and relative newness to pastoral duties has him proceeding with caution, allowing himself to blend into the congregation’s routine, to become one with, not one above, us.

Today my ears were extra perked when listening to Father’ sermon. He spoke of our need to focus upon the “small things” in our lives. These, he said, are the building blocks of the kingdom of Heaven. God does not reward us for “flash”, but rather for what we do “behind the scenes.” As stewards of God’s gifts, our services toward and on behalf of one another will be rewarded. Our faithfulness will be recognized. Romans 12:6-8 from The New Testament testifies to this:

“We each have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.” 

As an introduction to his homily, Father Brian spoke of witnessing small, but meaningful, human gestures that “built up the Kingdom of God.” Friends from out-of-town were visiting with him. A couple and their 2 daughters visited the popular tourist attractions. In their comings and goings, Father witnessed the loving care bestowed upon the littlest child by her sister and her parents.

On a recent visit with his elderly grandparents at their assisted living facility, Father celebrated the Mass in their apartment, the 3 huddling together. At the “kiss of peace”, his grandparents turned and pecked each other on the cheek, mouthing the words “I love you” to one another. This demonstration of their affection spoke volumes of their 67 year-long marriage.

After weekday Mass one morning, Father Brian noticed a lone woman moving through the pews, collecting congregation booklets, which she would then return to their housing. On another occasion, a parishioner asked Father if she could bring flowers from her garden to place around the altar. Walking over to it, he fingered one of the daisies, lovingly displayed in a vase. Matching arrangements were staged prominently in other areas.

It is obvious that Father Brian is like family to his parishioners. He freely speaks to us of his mother, other relatives, his friends, his love of basketball, his personal impressions of a recent visit to the Vatican, and his own faith journey. And he eagerly awaits us outside after Mass, shaking hands and smiling broadly. He always remembers our daughter, though she’s not a regular. Because he attracts everyone with his charismatic style, I said to Father Brian one day “You could be a rock star!” To which he replied, after letting out a belly laugh, “Jesus is the rock star!”

no “Hell, fire and brimstone” here, only warmth…hugmamma

a venetian stranger

Remember the advice you heard growing up “Don’t hitch rides.” and “Don’t talk to strangers.”  Well, I’ve done both. (Read my posts “a ride with strangers” and “attitude adjustment.”) Of course I didn’t “throw caution to the wind” until I was older, much older. Somehow it didn’t occur to me that I’d be taken advantage of; I was plump, graying, and sagging… just a little. Aren’t those weapons enough to keep the crazies at bay? Although these days I’m not so certain. Nonetheless I continue to enjoy speaking with strangers. As for riding with them, it depends on how desperate I am to see my daughter. Hopefully, I won’t need to “test those waters” again. I can’t imagine that a second experience could be more amazing than my first.

During our trip to Venice, I had one of the warmest encounters with a total stranger. Having left St. Mark’s Square after a couple of very informative, very historical tours of St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, we meandered through the small, back streets surrounding the Square. We were in search of a couple of shops recommended by Rick Steves in “Venice 2008.” On the hunt for a gift for one of my daughter’s male dancer friends, I found “…two fascinating mask and costume shops. The Ca’ del Sol… and Atelier Marega…” While I didn’t purchase a mask from either, I did wander through both, “oohs” and “aahs” spewing forth. The only other time I’d seen a proliferation of masks was in American theme parks, like Disneyland and Busch Gardens. And believe me, they’re not the same.

Venetian masks are serious business.  “In the 1700s, when Venice was Europe’s party town, masks were popular–sometimes even mandatory–to preserve the anonymity of nobles doing things forbidden back home. At Carnevalle (the weeks-long mardi Gras leading up to Lent), everyone wore masks. The most popular were based on characters from the Low-brow comedic theater called Commedia dell’Arte. We all know Harlequin (simple, Lone Ranger-type masks), but there were also long-nosed masks for the hypocritical plague doctor, pretty Columina masks, and so on. Masks are made with the simple technique of papier-mache. You make a mold of clay, smear it with Vaseline (to make it easy to remove the finished mask), then create the mask by draping layers of paper and glue atop the clay mold.” Perhaps I should have kept up mask-making when I left kindergarten. Maybe then I wouldn’t be here attempting to eke out a small income from writing. But it’s better I do what I do best, and leave mask-making to those for whom it is obviously a passion. I found such a person in Barbara Lizza.

Being too overwhelmed by the tremendous inventory of beautiful masks in the shops recommended by Steves,  I wandered in and out of smaller ones. The offerings were fewer, but no less gorgeous. Unable to commit, I asked my husband to continue on and scope out more shops, while I tried to make up my mind in the ones at hand. A few minutes later he returned saying there were no others across the small bridge just ahead. Returning to a tiny shop where I’d been earlier, I was pleased to be the only customer. Moving about more easily than before I admired masks resembling story book animals, hanging from the low overhead beams. They were so charming in their pastel shades, a frog, a pig, an alligator, a rooster, among others. Assuring myself they were probably pricey and inappropriate for dancers in their mid-20’s, I pressed on in my search for the right mask. Sitting on a shelf about knee-high, were exquisite eye masks. They were a matte black, with glitter sprinkled thickly around the eye holes and on the leafy extensions that swept upward on either side. Unable to select from ones bearing silver, gold or red glitter, I picked up all 3 and deposited them near the laptop where purchases were made. Hunched over the computer was a pretty, young woman. Straightening herself, we made eye contact and smiled at one another.

Breaking the silence, Miss Lizza took the mask framed in red glitter and placed it to her face, so that her eyes peered at me through the holes. Ripples of laughter bounced off the stucco walls, as we made small talk. I told her that the masks were for my daughter and her friends who were dancers. That elicited a confession that she’d been a ballet dancer for several years. Rushing to a small room off to the side of the main shop, the young woman rifled through packages on a shelf. Finding what she sought, she turned back toward me carrying a plastic bag filled with used pointe shoes. She removed a pair, proudly showing them to me. I joined in her excitement as she spoke of bygone days. Eager to tell me about her days dancing, she struggled to find the correct words. I admired her fortitude for pressing onward.

It seemed Miss Lizza might have pursued a career in dance, but was dissuaded by family. So while she might have been disappointed, she forged a new career in mask-making. From what I saw of her work in the shop, I expressed great pleasure in her obvious talent. As I am wont to do, I rummaged through my handbag  pulling out a picture of my daughter, cut from a tourist booklet printed in the town where she resides and dances. I showed it to Miss Lizza who gasped, exclaiming how beautiful my daughter was and how proud I must be of her. I then explained that there was a video of my daughter dancing on the internet. Miss Lizza quickly bent down typing away on her keyboard, asking me where she could find the video. We had difficulty bringing it up, but she did find my daughter’s name and Facebook page. Asking if it was okay to “friend” her, I consented.

As this young, Venetian, former, ballet dancer attempted to compose a message, I marveled at what was happening. A world away, a stranger was on the verge of making my daughter’s acquaintance, sight unseen. I was becoming emotional so that when Miss Lizza wrote “Your mother is standing here beside me and…” I began to cry and then bawl uncontrollably. I missed my daughter very much and felt her presence in this young woman perhaps 10 years her senior. As she and I hugged, I felt like I was holding my own daughter in my arms. Miss Lizza comforted me, telling me she could sense how sensitive and sympathetic I was. We laughed in spite of my tears, for we were behaving like long-lost relatives unexpectedly meeting in a shop, with people wandering in and out. After several attempts at saying goodbye, I turned towards the door to see a very tall, very broad young man staring at us looking dumbfounded. Miss Lizza announced that he was her boyfriend, explaining to him in Venetian what had happened. Passing him on the way out, I told him he was very lucky to have a beautiful, charming girlfriend.

Venice remains special for me, and I will never forget that young woman who felt like a daughter,… if only for an hour or so.

ciao bella…hugmamma.