(Journal from 4-5 November)
Lots of catching up to do! Sorry, but there are some long entries coming (and please remember to visit the GALLERY for pictures that go along with these stories).
When I last wrote, I was waiting for Lara & Saskia to pick me up. They came for me, and we drove to their home outside of town, on a hill above the road from Tredozio to Modigliana. It was raining again and getting on in the evening when we arrived, so I wasn’t able to see the view from the house or the grounds around it. The house itself is a large stone structure originally built in the 13th century, and was once used as a lookout tower during the Guidi war. We entered on the main level, stepping directly into the kitchen. The focal point of the room is a communal dining table in front of a large open fireplace, the kind you might envision in medieval times heating a substantial black iron cooking pot that’s simmering with something tasty. It has a full apartment in the lower level that Lara rents to people for holiday use or otherwise. It has seen a great deal of mystery and intrigue in recent months of the “Italy’s Most Wanted” ilk, and she can tell you the stories if you stay there (http://www.fiumevecchio.com/).
They have 2 horses that are very close to Lara’s heart. She’s currently taking classes to learn the natural way of keeping them without metal shoes, or any shoes for that matter. She’s quite passionate about this and about spreading the message of this holistic approach. Her father was visiting from England, virtually deaf, quite eccentric, and entertaining to say the least! He came promptly with Lara’s 18-year-old son Stefan, so there was a full house for my visit. Lara made coffee and sliced some cake for us, and the two of us sat in the great room chatting over these wonderful treats. Saskia seemed a bit miffed (as any proper 9 year old might) that we really wanted to have adult time. We had a great time telling stories and talking about our respective lives, our hearts’ desires, our dreams, our likes and dislikes. Lara dreams of living her life on horseback and moving cattle. I grew up dreaming of visiting England and innumerable points beyond. If we had met 25 years sooner, we would have arranged a trade! Soon, her father set about making a dinner of tomato stew with pork and sausages, and I was invited to stay. It was wonderful! Afterward, Stefan and I pulled out our laptops and shared a few photos of our lives and travels. We played with their family dog and resident Jack Russell “Terror”, Frederick or Freddie as they typically call him. Lara gave me some contacts in England for when I visit next week. I enjoyed getting to spend some time with her and her family, and I think I’ll have great friends to visit in Tredozio again in the future.
The next morning after meditating, I packed my things and walked down the hill a final time to the hostel office to ask if Grazia, the woman there, could drive up with her car to bring my bags down. She was happy to help, and when we were gathering my things, she gestured to the mountains across the valley saying something about il volcano. I nodded yes, having read that these mountains were formed by volcanoes and thinking she was simply making small talk about the formation of the local geography. This is where my limitations in the language become blaringly apparent. I had intended her to bring the bags and me down to the office and to walk to Tredozio from there, but she drove past the office and continued down the hill toward town. “Wonderful!!” I thought. Once in town, she kept driving right through it, and I quickly realized she was taking me for a scenic drive in the mountains she’d been gesturing toward. I was thrilled. We wound past old farmhouses, small vacation retreats, and barns full of big round hay bales like the ones my father makes in Texas. We enjoyed views of dense, rolling mountains covered in a patchwork of fields, trees, colors and textures. I saw falcons and other birds I didn’t recognize or know how to name. She pointed to the yellow and black striped poles frequenting the sides of the road and explained these were meant to measure the snow that would accumulate in the coming winter months. Soon, near the top, on the west side of Monte Busco with clear views to the National Park in the south and west, we stopped. She parked just off the road next to an abandoned and decaying stone building, and indicated we’d get out and walk a bit. After all that rain, the light grayish-brown earth was saturated and slick. I wasn’t wearing shoes appropriate for the outing and slipped coming over a little hill, falling on my backside. Laughter and embarrassment apparently translate in any language. As Grazia helped me up, I looked ahead to discover what she’d brought me to see—the volcano! At the edge of the mountain was a large flame coming from a small crater in this field of mud. I finally understood. All told, she took almost an hour from her day to gather my things and me, take me for a little tour that only a local could take, and drop me at the bust stop for my 12:30 bus ride (or so I thought) to Faenza where I would take the train to Lodi. Grazia is quite gracious, true to her name.
Once at the bus stop, I realized that the next one was actually not until 2:30, arriving Faenza at 3:20 only 15 minutes before my train departed. It's a bit of a walk from the bus stop to the train station, and that would come very near closing that gap. It was too close but I had to try! Immacolata, the woman I was staying with that night, was expecting to meet me at her station at 7:00, and I didn’t want to be late. Again, relying on hearsay and poor preparation on my part resulted in difficult schedules. I was indeed born under a wandering star resigned to “come what may”. Ahhh, mama mia!
I began to use those extra 2 hours for gathering a few last pictures of Tredozio, but soon had enough. I sat in a café next to the bus stop to observe, write, and eat a bite for lunch. As I sat, people came in and out “per un caffe” or snack and a few bits of gossip with each other. The barista was a tall, slender and nice-looking middle-aged man named Giovanni who was very friendly. He accommodated me like a royal visitor and spoke happily with everyone who entered the bar. A woman came in with her small dog, something like a Chihuahua but with a suave Italian air. This phenomenon of people and their animals looking alike transcends borders. I alternately watched the people and went about my writing and eating a panino. Soon enough, Luigi walked in, a man who I recognized from La Luna Rosa and who had participated on the set of “Adventures of a Wonder Kid”. He joined me, and we muddled through our apparent language barrier. Giovanni indicated to me that Luigi had paid for my order, and I thanked him profusely. I told him about myself, where I’m from, etc. That I come from a farming and ranching family in Texas, like many in this rural region. He gestured to a man now having a coffee at the bar and introduced him as Giusseppi, a farmer. The three of us now did our best to converse, and I gathered from Giusseppi that similar difficulties exist for farmers here in Italy as do for people like my father. It’s a livelihood replete with hard work and often little financial compensation. He showed me hands and a face that exemplified a rugged life, but mixed with the weathered lines around his eyes and mouth were traces of many smiles as well.
It was approaching 2:00, and Luigi began insisting that he take me to Faenza in his car. It would be faster than the bus; he could drop me in front of the station saving me the walk, and this way we could talk a bit longer. I learned he’s a craftsman, a builder, and like so many of us, he has very little work right now. The reason he was not working that day was his mother. She was in the hospital and had been for about 2 weeks. He said it would soon be her time to depart. She’s 85 and has been sick for a couple of years with breast cancer, having received a mastectomy at some point. Cancer also knows no borders.
It was a beautiful drive through the valley to Faenza! I hadn’t been able to see it on the way in because of darkness, and I discovered other little villages that looked like troves of treasure for future exploration. And Luigi did more than drop me at the station. He parked and carried my luggage inside for me. We exchanged the customary Italian double kiss, said our goodbyes, and I made my train comfortably with time to spare. Luigi’s name may not mean “savior” or “grace” in his language like Salvatore and Grazia, but he was a kind and perfectly charitable gentleman. Grazie, Luigi!
Now I’m on the train, on my way to meet and stay the night with Immacolata Coraggio who is well versed in the ways of pilgrims as well as having completed the via Francigena in its entirety last year. She will be yet another Italian friend with a name full of meaning, its literal translation being “immaculate courage”. She sounds delightful on the phone, and I just had a vision of her and a particular friend of mine getting on beautifully like schoolgirls reunited after many years of separation. I have so many questions I want to ask, yet I know there’s only so much I can learn by listening and reading of other people’s experiences. The questions I have for her are of practical and logistical considerations. It’s the walking that will teach. Walkology you might call it, and if you have been to Vipassana you know this is borrowed from Goenka with my own twist added. This kind of empirical wisdom can only come from putting one foot in front of the other, breath after breath, moment after moment.
As I sit here on the train perusing my Via Francigena guidebooks and writing, I’m aware of a calmer energy pulsing through and around me. I’ve not been so quick to react to, well, everything, good or bad. And when I do, it’s with less intensity and I recover more promptly than before. I suppose for this I have Vipassana to thank. Being new to it, I will do my best to describe in a very basic way, the practice of Vipassana. Essentially it involves accepting what is without judgment. Core to this practice is anitya [sounds like aneecha], the impermanence, transience, and instability of all things, including self. If we recognize this as being so, then it stands to reason that all our misery comes from attachments to things that, by law of nature, will invariably pass away. To further explain, misery stems from craving things we do not have, and from aversions to the way things are. By remaining equanimous—having no judgment of these attachments, aversions and cravings, as being good or bad—then we can eventually liberate ourselves from misery and suffering. The practice of Vipassana meditation focuses the mind in a way that cultivates equanimity through the direct corporeal experience of anitya in the body. You cannot learn how to swim by reading about it. You have to get in the water. This is called “swimology”. Nor can we truly learn how to remain equanimous, peaceful, and compassionate in the face of anitya (and our true nature as impermanent beings) without direct physical experience of it in our own bodies. The more one practices daily, the more the effects will take hold beyond the meditation cushion, allowing a practitioner to carry peace, equanimity, and compassion out into the world with them. As with all practices, this is most certainly easier said than done and takes a lifetime (or lifetimes, if you so choose) of dedication. But I am sold and will continue to sit daily.
However, because of my propensity for over-thinking (the very affliction Vipassana might cure if I stay with it), I have a few philosophical questions lingering after my 10 days in the retreat. Doesn’t the very recognition of peace, equanimity and compassion (wonderful as they are), not constitute judgment? Do we not have to judge killing as wrong in order to renounce it, thereby breaking one’s commitment to remain equanimous? It all seems like a bit of an Escher drawing manifest. But I suppose these are not concepts to be analyzed; they are actions to be observed and lived. I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy rearranging the context and circumstances of my life, and made an overhaul of my mind and inner being, to create space for what it is I’m doing right now…the pursuit of this way of living and being, of an independent life of travel and telling stories and inspiring others (I hope) in the cultivation of their own happiness, whatever form that takes for them. I have written and talked incessantly in recent years about having a dream, discovering/uncovering one’s bliss, and following it. But if I am to stay true to the teaching of Vipassana, does all this dreaming and bliss not constitute craving and ultimately create more suffering? On the other side of the coin, did moving away from what I was doing and what I had constitute aversion? I have contemplated all of this and the meaning of life for the past 6 or 7 years. I’ve given a great deal of time and energy over to it. In fact, these and other existential, philosophical, and psychological questions have plagued me at times to the point of making me insane! You can now see the inner workings of my mind and know why I require at least 8 hours of sleep each night. It’s exhausting!
For a large part, what Vipassana teaches is what I have experienced and done my best to practice in my own life. In recent years, I have worked diligently at accepting the sum and total of all things, people, events, etc that had been and have become my life. I give mass quantities of heartfelt gratitude for all of it. ALL of it. Every bit, including the challenges, triumphs, losses, pains, betrayals, and frustrations. I cultivated a significant amount of equanimity even before I sat in Vipassana meditation. And I remain steadfast, bolstered even, in my commitment to this dream I have and am currently living, to first be happy and inspired, by life and whatever I have and am and do. And to take these gifts of inner peace and happiness with me out into the world to share them with anyone willing to live ferociously enough to have their own. Carpe Vitam...”seize your life”…but, I suppose, don’t forget to let go when it’s time.
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