(A series of personal observations recorded as Italy takes action against the spread of Covid-19, first published April 7, 2020)
It’s interesting to me how relatively quickly we’ve adapted to the state of things. Lately I’m feeling little wells of gratitude rise up over things I’d previously taken for granted. I’ve accepted that “I don’t know” is a perfectly reasonable response and need not produce anxiety. I’ve stopped trying to make plan Bs, Cs, Ds, and Es to recuperate my previous, and quite interrupted, plans. I’ve stopped trying to guess about what will happen. It seems exhausting just watching “experts” try. I’ve stopped thinking that there must be someplace better than where I am now, or something better than what I’m doing now.
Some time in the last week or so I even stopped calling for the cat. I hadn’t exactly given up hope, but it’s been more than four weeks now. Sometimes I could swear I heard him and would look out the back windows, down to where he might be waiting at the back door, scanning the rooftops of the woodsheds where he liked to sun; squinting at the grey branches of the neighbor’s fig tree to see if he were stretched out along one, barely visible, grey–on-grey. Today, arriving at the studio, I looked out through the window on the stairwell into the back gardens.
The bells rang today, once a long haphazard slow ringing because there was a death in the village and a couple times more for Palm Sunday. There weren’t any olive-branch-porting procession-ers in the streets today though; no mass in the sweet Chiesa dell’Annunziata, which opens the doors to its late-Baroque grace only rarely, but always for this day.
What won’t be celebrated in the streets is finding its way out in food, regardless of the restrictions. Yesterday, coming home from the studio I was almost at my door when Annamaria from the bottega across the piazza called out to me. Come here! Blue-gloved and masked, she handed me a small package. As I walked in the door, the unmistakable orange-blossom scent gave it away—pastiera!
This smell and the taste of this torte brings me back to my childhood when my family would pile in the car on Easter Sunday to drive an hour to the home of one of my mother’s aunts, usually Millie or Jay, to crowd into the dining room with at least 15 or 20 other aunts, uncles and cousins to eat. All day. Six courses, maybe more. Near the end, before the fruit came out, there would be the pastries and the rich, sweet, dense pastiera. My mother’s aunts would have been cooking for days. They were first generation Americans and knew all the recipes from “home” by heart. This was one of my favorites. Before arriving in this valley, about two and a half hours by car from where all my great grandparents came from, I hadn’t had a slice of pastiera in many years. My first Easter here I was flooded by a mix of memories of vinyl-covered sofas, laughter and loudness, uncomfortable “Sunday” clothes, foreign words dropped into the conversation like expletives, the mystery of the great-uncle whose hair was blacker than my mother’s (and she so much younger), the perfume of the women, the perfume of the lasagna; staying at the table to listen in on the conversation of the men (and steal sips of sambucca unimpeded), and the small cups of bitter coffee.
Today I start my day with half of the last piece of pastiera and an espresso. Later I call my mother. It’s her birthday.
(April 4, 2020)
It’s late in the day but the mountain behind me hasn’t yet started to cast its shadow across the valley in front of me and outside my studio windows the moon is rising in the pale blue sky. My brother writes from Thailand to share that today is Qingming Jie, Pure Brightness, or the day for sweeping the tombs of our ancestors; for giving thanks to those who’ve gone before us. I have no tombs to sweep but I call out my gratitude to all the ones who survived the insufferable, who handed down their faults and virtues; who paved the way for my birth and my life. I come from a very long line of farmers. When I first arrived here I knew it was them who called me back and though I still can’t say exactly why, I sense they’re trying to explain.
With the growing light and pure brightness and waxing moon, it’s a day for gratitude. I am so wealthy with space to make my work, with work I love, with inspiration, with sustenance (it’s a giving day for the garden), with freedom, with friendships, with good health; with love.
I wake in the early hours from a dream in which I was weeping. He wakes also, a different kind of disturbing dream. A little later there’s a message from my oldest son who’s woken 7 time zones away from a nightmare. I am curious now about how many sleeps are disturbed by dreams this night.
The bright morning seems almost ordinary. There is a loose line in front of Annamaria’s bottega, the chitchat muffled by masks. Each bench has just a single occupant, two of whom shout at each other across the distance between them; the other smokes, his mask pulled down, and tilts his face to the sun that fills more of our small piazza than it did just a couple weeks ago. We are off the main road and there is less danger here of passing carabinieri or a ticket. On my short walk to the studio I am greeted by the twittering house martins who have returned from Africa to repair their nests or make new ones.
I added this blog as a way to share some thoughts and experiences around the impact of Covid-19 on my life here in Southern Italy. These posts have been a near-daily practice during this time and are largely unedited, most having been first posted on Facebook. They are of course in order with the most recent entry on the first page. I invite you to explore previous posts or even start from the beginning.