Thursday, September 25, 2014

Five Beautiful Things: Ivrea, Italy

This evening seems like just the time for Five Beautiful Things.  

Five beautiful things is a practice in which you take notice of five beautiful things as a way to shift your energy.  It came into my life throughTara Mohr via my friend Laurel Holman. I highly recommend experimenting with the practice yourself.  Its essence grows out of mindfulness, but what I like about it, is its willingness to linger on beauty.

After a full week of touring and jet lag, I'm tired, and feeling homesick for Graham, for the kids, for my own bed, for my writing.  So am turning to this practice to give me a quick surge of creative energy.

Over the last two weeks I've been immersed in research about my Great Grandfather Camillo.  First at Stanford, where he taught in 1893, then in Ivrea, Italy, the town where my family is from (and where my uncle  and cousins still live).  It's hard to pick just five things to share from Ivrea, but the trick here is to be quick--I've still got to pack to get out of here at 6:45AM tomorrow.

Five Beautiful Things from Ivrea

The Dora River flowing under Ivrea's old Roman bridge.  The water of the Dora descends from the mountains, arriving in Ivrea like an aqua opal--it's not clear, but the water is remarkably beautiful.

A corner of the frescoes that line the walls of Il Convento--the home where my great grandfather raised his family.  The frescoes are in a chapel that had been used as a barn for many years, but was restored in the 1950s by the Olivettis.  For anyone out there who is an art history buff--the frescoes are beautiful in execution, and incorporate both Italian renaissance elements (perspective, human form, etc) and Flemish renaissance elements (glowing light, nighttime scenes, luminous details).  This was the second time I've had a chance to see this work of art--the first time brought me to tears--that something so beautiful had been curated in my lineage.

A hand drawn sketch of the original Olivetti logo from the Archivio Storico Olivetti (the Olivetti historic archives).

The Olivetti M1, the first typewriter shipped by Olivetti in 1908, with the logo from above.

And a sweet ending.  This is the "Torta Nove Cento,"  Ivrea's traditional regional dessert.  Imagine something between a chocolate lady finger and a chocolate meringue that floats on the top and lines the bottom of something that is like a chocolate mousse, but lighter, more fluffy--almost whipped cream.  I had never had one before, and my aunt served one for dessert my last night in Ivrea.  I liked it so much I asked my father take me to the bakery the next morning so that we could have it again for breakfast.  I want to save that single moment, sitting in a pasticceria with my father, eating dessert for breakfast.  It was simple and sweet, a totally unplanned surprise, and yet the very reason I made the trip--to learn more about where I'm from and savor time with the Olivetti side of my family.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Today I am thinking about wholeness, and I am surprised that what pops up is a memory of the Parthenon from this summer.  Many people have asked me what Greece was like and I have pleasantly told them how delicious the food was, or how wonderful it was to have a cultural experience combined with time at the beach.  What I haven’t been able to express in casual conversation is how moved I was while there, especially by the Parthenon.

I want to take you inside the new Acropolis Museum with me.  I want you to feel the relief of dim lighting and cool air, the way that the back of your neck is finally  free from the sweaty hair that has clung to your skin for what feels like hours.  I want you to come take your seat next to me on a gray marble ledge.  In front of you is the restored pediment of the Parthenon, and over your right shoulder, you see through clean glass, all the way to the Acropolis, where the skeleton of the Parthenon stands overlooking Athens.

How carefully someone has imagined us here, looking over our shoulders.  Our back and forth gaze from the indoor restoration to the Acropolis across the way reminds us over and over again of the tenderness of their work.  How real people called us forth, before we even knew we were on our way.   How much they wanted to show us the very thing we see right now, sitting here on this bench.

Suddenly tears come, because the most obvious thing from here, is how broken the Parthenon is.  Entire slabs of her marble skin and the accompanying sculptural work are missing.  Dismembered body parts are frozen in time:  a goddess’s hand gently draped, the foot of a soldier planted, liquid folds of robes standing in headless columns.  Each stone shard lovingly placed in it’s right relationship to the monument as she stood in her heyday, so that when you see her remains, you also see the ghost of what she once was.

What floods up is a heave of emotion, right there in the museum, for every broken thing, for each separation as it has occurred.  For the crumbling twin towers on 9/11, for your parents' divorce, for the friend you treated badly in seventh grade, for the thousand ways you fail to be the parent you aspire to be.  All the falling apart is right there in front of you, mixed up with the Parthenon's rubble--a heap of irreparable damage.  

And then you look one more time over your shoulder, back and forth between the Acropolis and the museum, and you realize that not all has been lost.  After generations of religious war and political infighting, the Parthenon has been released into the care of the New Acropolis Museum (opened in 2009).  Her remains have found their way to the hands of curators, whose life work has been to put the pieces back in order.  

The care of this work has ushered the Parthenon into a new chapter that might be called the age of restoration, where the tasks at hand include cataloging the remains, figuring out where they belong, and laying them out in an order that will tell her story over and over again for all time.    Sitting on the cold marble bench, you wake up to the notion that this where wholeness appears--in the age of restoration.  It is not in the original undamaged structure.  Wholeness is not about perfection, it is not as rigid as a single form.  It rises out of the rubble and the falling apart, the longing for peace that comes from the wreckage, the desire to be part of the team who puts the remains back to rights.  Wholeness is the holding, the moment to glance at the ruin, to feel the pang, and to recommit to gently loving the remains.

On that note, I am off to the archive at Stanford today, where I will don white gloves and sort through ephemera from the University's very first president, David Starr Jordan, in hopes of encountering any bit or scrap of information I can find about my great-grandfather Camillo, who was employed by the University in 1894.  May I move forward gently.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

That Baby Bird Place

Thank you Montserrat Alonso for sharing this image

Yesterday I emailed a friend I haven’t seen in a while, to see if she could have dinner with me on short notice.  “That sounds like it would be wonderful, but it couldn’t come at a worse time.”  She went on to tell me that a good friend of hers died suddenly this weekend, doing something that I love to do, that I want my kids to love to do, that I imagine many of you love to do too--he died while swimming in the ocean.

Her news struck me in the chest where something crumbled.  Words fell away, and even after trying to think of how to reply, all I could come up with was “oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.”

What I found in that wide open place of “oh dear” is something that felt tiny and pink, maybe like a baby bird, that is always there, but mostly shielded by ten thousand layers of thoughts and plans.  It is the emblem of tenderness, it is the reminder of how small we are in the face of things, it is the soft spot that when we touch it we feel humble and full of awe.

I could write a gratitude list everyday a never be transported to this place.  The thinking involved, the question itself, “what are you grateful for?” the finitude of a list, circumvents raw feeling, and without connection to that feeling, writing a gratitude list can feel like small practice given the vast unknowableness we encounter in this lifetime.  I’m not saying I’m against gratitude lists, I think what I’m saying is that writing one doesn’t always get at the whole of things.  For me, it can skim the surface, barely touching “the size of the cloth.”

And so last night, instead of asking the kids what they were grateful for that day, I told them this story, of a dad who went out for a swim and didn’t come back.  It was a heavy load, and I’m not sure I did the right thing.  But I needed them to know, to start to understand, that no one knows what happens tomorrow.  We have today to love each other, to take care of each other, and to create from that raw open feeling.  When we are connected to that baby bird place no thought is necessary, no list is required.  I know my smallness, and that makes a lot of room for everything else.