Update from Italy: Quaranjeans

Day whatever of these jeans.
Photo by Tamara Bellis on Unsplash

I’m not longer counting days in lockdown. It’s gone past that, and instead, I am turning toward some future unknown date on which we might turn this corner, and say, wasn’t it so funny how that day was our last day in total lockdown that first time, and we didn’t even realize it? We’ll come out of it much as we went into it. We won’t know, and then we’ll know all at once, but the curve out of this will not be as steep as the curve into it.

Tuscany gets high marks from me for coping well. Masks have been publicly distributed. Our hospitals are not overwhelmed. Our medical system is superb. It seems that everyone who needs medical attention is getting medical attention. Testing has been very proactive – all at-risk workers, and all group homes. Even across Italy at large, our numbers of patients in ICU has halved from a few weeks ago.

Careful talk around here is that Monday, May 4, might be a day we can pin some hope on. Still over two weeks away, but restrictions might lift, ever so gently, with a list of guidance. Perhaps we will be able to leave our homes, always wearing a mascherine (face masks), so long as we stay in our city limits, or even the province. Travelling further afield will likely require the permission slip, and transgressors will be fined and turned around. Some people say we might be able to move about the region (e.g. Tuscany, which is basically the Texas of Italy size-wise) but I find that difficult to fathom. Maybe we can go to the park in front of our house and eat crackers on a bench, underneath our mascherine! Maybe we can ride our bikes around town with a mask on! Maybe the City of Florence will have fixed that broken swing on the playground by then! Some high school kids broken the chain before Christmas. That, and allegations of dogs being purposely poisoned in the park by local dog-haters, were our big headlines before all this madness began.

Today I put on my quaranjeans for the forty-somethingth time. I bought them a year or two ago at the Mercato Sant’Ambrogio for twenty euros, and didn’t even try them on. They still look great on. A kind of denim girdle for this damn quarandiet. I’ve been wearing them almost nonstop, minus brief pauses for laundry, for weeks. The YouTube yoga sessions are hard on them so they’ve been repaired a few times with needle and thread. Looking around the apartment, I have inventoried the items that have gone disused since late February.

Most of my clothes. I wear a black cami and jeans at day, a black cami and some grey Danskin sweatpants at night, pretty much. If I go wild I put on a cardigan.

I spied a Hansaplast blister kit on our bathroom shelf. That made me laugh. Blisters! What are those!? Not far from the blister kit were two boxes of Xamamina – our motion-sickness medicine of choice in Italy, as Eleanor and I both suffer from motion sickness, especially when in the car on Italy’s tight twisting roads. Hilarious. We might need those again in 2022, in which case these ones will have expired, so I’ll just set a calendar reminder to buy more Xamamina in 2022, or maybe even 2023.

Shampoo and conditioner. I have been washing my hair once every week or two. Fortunately I’m not naturally greasy so this is manageable. Still that shampoo smelled sooo nice this morning I thought… maybe I should make an effort to wash my mop more often.

Umbrella. I spied that in the corner this morning and was all, what the hell is that!? It was poking out of the side pocket of my laptop backpack. Who are YOU!? I nearly shouted at it. Bike helmet, also this morning, ibid. I am basically a YouTube doggo at this point.

Cosmetics. Is it weird that I still like to put on blush and lipstick even when I am at home with my little family? Ok, fine, also some powder and sparkle powder. I don’t know why I do it. It makes me look a little like la marquise de Merteuil minus the push-up bodice. Hmm I could add that bodice anyway in homage to the Jacobites and the now-cancelled San Diego Comic-Con. I like this picture of her with her massive plume. Now that’s an alter ego I can get on board with.

What items are in in heavy rotation around here? Baking accessories. Flour. The washing machine and dishwasher. Mascherine and grocery bags. Watercolors and those bits and bobs. Badminton rackets and birdies. Screens of all sizes. Books. Bubble bath. Sewing kit. All the toys. Playing cards. Chocolate. Cheese. Wine. Grappa.

You? What are your disused versus heavy rotation items in lockdown? Be honest.

I am ready to go off-leash again.
Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

Update from Italy: My Inner Abbess

My inner Abbess definitely rides a bike. Photo by Viktor Talashuk on Unsplash

I have seen posts on social media from friends and people in my network who feel that quarantine has made them realize that they are more social than they thought. Previous 4s and 5s have said they are, in fact, a 9 or 10. These casual yet plaintive posts set me to thinking.

Before the quarantine began, if you’d asked me how social I was, I would have put myself a solid 9 or 10. (But this extrovert goes to 11!) I might have said that sometimes people exhaust me, but in general, I am always up for a chat or an impromptu gathering or apéro. I might have said that a certain personality type wore on me -for example, the type of sunburnt person who will order a bucket of Corona longnecks and then take first place in the bellyflop contest in the pool on the top deck of a cruise ship. I have never been good at small talk, particularly when the crowd is tough going. I hate working a crowd. At any social gathering, I usually find one interesting person to joke with for an extended period of time. I have never liked the Basic Questionnaire (who are you, where are you from, what do you do) mostly because I can only reluctantly offer half-baked, complicated answers that don’t lend themselves well to short conversations. I attach myself to trustworthy souls.

Now, on day whatever it is of the great Italian isolation, I think I am closer to a 5. Maybe a 6. I had no idea I had such a capacity to put on my headphones and disappear into my own world. I have reconnected with my inner bookworm, who was never very far away anyway. The days and weeks are really starting to fly by. How attached was I to this idea of myself as a super social person?

Some corner of my mind, back where the worry mice gnaw, knew this long ago. In my early twenties, I often felt as though I were leaking and spilling energy everywhere into throwaway social fripperies. An ill-fated response chapter led to the Introversion Campaign, in which I set about to correct my people-loving deficiencies, to remake myself into the introvert that everyone could relate to. That proved itself a certifiable disaster as I wound up living a lonely life I hated. I had always been surrounded by introverts, for the most part, and my tendencies seemed weird and frivolous to them. I have always had a broody contemplative side that thrilled to a silent retreat. As a challenge. As a goal. A sort of self-abnegation, given to spiritual discipline. I could give it all up. And more, and more, and more. I have actually considered taking monastic vows in my life. (Don’t worry, Jason, it’s no longer appealing.) But I can see why widows and grandmothers went into convents at the threshold of older age back in what Victor calls super-horsey times.

A loose conviction of the transmigration of souls has led me to muse, from time to time, if I was not perhaps a Benedictine abbess in a past life. It’s sort of like the Office Manager and Spiritual Director component of Farm Wife, who’s running the monastery kitchen and could use a confessor, and Miss Anxiety, the earnest novitiate, who seeks reassurance and guidance. All the time in Quarantine is providing ample space to consider these archetypes in light of changing social demands and new restrictions. My Inner Abbess sounds like a social 5 on the scale. She cares for her charges and is a skillful companion to almost all temperaments, but also values the time in her study adjacent to her cell, reading and writing, setting side time aside for contemplation. I have felt so connected to this inner Abbess that she prompted my confidence to draft my first (unfinished) novel, which was firmly rooted in Benedictine culture. In any case, she has been a useful companion here in Quarantine as she counsels patience, transformation, and the relinquishment of control. And busy hands. And a reasonable bedtime. Red wine in moderation. A treat from time to time out of the kitchen bolsters the spirits of young novitiates and aimless tertiaries.

I don’t know if I’ll ever consider myself a social 9 or 10 again. Probably not. And for this, my inner Abbess heaves a sigh of relief.

Update from Italy: Things That Caught Me Off Guard

Anyone else feeling a little like this? Not all the time, but for significant stretches?
Lake Michigan in winter. Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

Apologies in advance for the pandemic processing post. If you’re overwhelmed today, just skip it.

Things That Caught Me Off Guard: A List

How quickly this slope got so slippery. From smirking, willful denials and late-night dinners, to “we might have a problem,” to tentative measures, to national house arrest for humanity, to obedience, remorse, and nationwide hyperventilation. I felt genuinely nauseated in early March, here in Italy, stricken by the psychological vertigo of failing to adjust at pace with the news.

Remembering that emotional aquifer where dark feelings are stored unseen, lying deep within each of us. Over which we have so little control, where anxiety, depression, frustration, irritation brew and eventually surface, filtering upward over the years through the limestone of life lived.

My frustration at people who were not getting with the program. This is a global crisis. Full stop. Please don’t debate this point. These days were rough sailing.

How much everyone wanted to protect the economy before people. But the economy! Our hammer dropped on Carnevale, February 25, which also happened to be our fourteenth wedding anniversary, and I spent most of it eating a very fancy dinner by myself at a bistro table at Cibléo because Jason was on a two-hour phone call on the sidewalk finalizing their decision to send all the Gonzaga students home the following week. I was ready to up economic sticks and roll up travel tents on February 26. It all quickly became clear to me, my teeth would not stop chattering day in and day out, night after night. I was shocked at the complacency and pushback from people, both in Italy and abroad.

How relieved I was to put an apron on Miss Anxiety and slip into Farmwife mode. Rolling up my shirtsleeves and ready to do this. In retrospect, she saved me. It was not my job to convince anyone of anything. There were honest chores needed doing down on ol’ Quarantine Farm.

The degree to which I feel not just physically isolated – that much was predictable – but emotionally isolated in Italy. I’m no stranger in a strange land; this is my heart home. But Italians, with the exception of the family we actually live with in the palazzo, withdrew into their tribes, and I am in a bell jar looking out through the glass, all those delicate young friendships drooping and dead. I’m not from here.

My kitchen competence and courage are skills I had forgotten about.

How quickly I came to the dry land of acceptance after I sloshed through that initial swamp of fear. This is going to last a long, long time. We all turned a corner in March and we didn’t realize at the time the permanence of these changes.

None of this is normal. (I am okay with this.) We did not all magically shift to Remote Life. (I am okay with this.) We shifted to pandemic response mode. (I am okay with this.)

There will be new tomorrows. That I know. They’re in the pipeline; they’re coming. We are still in the start of the Vesuvian eruption. We are in the middle of the unfolding right now. But now I know this: we don’t know what those new tomorrows will look like. No one knows what the rest of 2020 holds for the planet. I can’t even read predictions anymore in the news. I’m hopeful that we will generate more compassion, justice, and empathy than the human race has ever before mustered in its history.

Update from Italy: The Bread-making Device

Photo by Fiona Smallwood on Unsplash

I am a baker by birth, as are my mother, and my grandmother, and I am sure stretching back through a chain of Finnish mothers and grandmothers deep into past centuries, probably ever since flour has been at hand. I always have been a baker, and I am training Eleanor now (age 5) into the baking mysteries. Few things make me happier than measuring and leveling flour and sugar; creaming soft butter and sugar, beating in eggs one by one. The sour pungence of yeast. The tiny amounts of salt, baking powder, baking soda; the divine whiff of vanilla powder or almond extract. Smudges of flour spell out my auguries. I feel calmer just tying on a clean apron. Let’s get to work.

Seattle was a grand locale to partake of baked items. I often baked there, but was frequently constrained by the vagaries of ovens in rental houses. But oh! the donuts at Top Pot, the coconut cake at Victrola, the baguettes available almost everywhere. I fully embraced my obsession with warm brie en croute in those years.

When I returned to Oklahoma in 2004, the dearth of good bread was a problem. Even the Super Target, which had a very decent bakery, sold bread at the outrageously inflated price of five dollars a load, fit only for parties, and you’d better eat all this bread tonight, because the next day it will be like a brick from Mesopotamia, the dream of all internal moisture nothing more than a distant memory. Prior to this, my baking affinity had not extended to yeast. I had shunned it out of fear. I did not bake daily or even weekly bread growing up. How can you trust yeast to awake and rise? Water too hot, too cold? Yeast is dead or not dead? Kneading? My mother didn’t bake much with yeast, but my grandma is still besties with yeast to this day at 98.

The Oklahoma bread imperative became critical. Fortunately, in 2006 The New York Times published their now-famous no-knead bread recipe. Encouraged by another baker friend in town, I gave it a whirl. The first boule was impressive enough that I was motivated to try again, asking questions, getting comfortable with shaggy dough. I loved that the wet dough did the work of the miniscule quarter-teaspoon of yeast. Yeast and I became fast friends. I had a beautiful cadet blue Le Creuset dutch oven we ‘d received as a wedding gift from my Aunt Ginny (Finnish side; also a devoted baker). I began to make the boule twice a week with the occasional rare variation (sea salt; olive oil; rosemary sprig). I bought a backup Dutch ove, in black enamel with a cream interior, taller than my Le Creuset, but equally charming. This went on for a decade, even through pregnancies and babies, with a year break while we were in Arezzo, when Victor was one.

When we found out in 2016 that we were moving to Florence and had to sort our housewares for storage versus shipment, the Le Creuset was set aside first. “Why are you doing that? There is bread in Italy!” Jason exclaimed. “No salt in it, gross.” I threw in our red cast-iron stovetop panini press. “Those things together weigh twenty-five pounds!” Jason cried. “They’re going,” I responded firmly. And yet, in the Great Sort prior to moving , somehow the Dutch ovens went into storage in Spokane (I hope). The panini maker made it to Italy, and we use it for steaks.

I have not needed to make the boules again until last month. With the quarantine and our shopping schedule, both Jason and I began really wishing for a fresh loaf, like before. I dug my recipe back out, but yeast is apparently sold out across the planet, and so, like everyone else who is looking for yeast, I began a starter and named her Izzy to quiet fanfare. The Izzy loaf was fresh but dense. Her cinnamon rolls were superb, but it is not practical to eat cinnamon rolls seven days a week, even under the current circumstances. I started to talk to Jason about my need for a cast-iron Dutch oven. We asked around in the palazzo, but no disused Dutch oven was available. Then, one day, on a grocery run, Jason came home and said, “You’re going to have to reimagine the shape of your bread.” He pulled out the item he bought at our hardware store. “They said this is the thing you make bread in.” The thing looked like a cat coffin or a storage container for cremains. It was made of rolled copper topped by a thrice-perforated sliding lid. “When I told them why I needed a Dutch over, they would not sell me one for bread baking. This is the thing they were willing to sell me for your stated purpose.” I played with the cat coffin for awhile. It had cost twenty-four euros. It was somber and looked like something that has been in use in Italy for the past three thousand years. I’m not one to argue with historic expertise, especially when it comes to Italians and food. I was keen to use it, but Izzy was not establishing an active cycle. She seemed fizzy and unreliable, and frankly drunk on hooch even though I fed her often twice a day.

Then, without warning, I was slipped two blocks of fresh Italian yeast at the Easter egg hunt in our palazzo garden on Sunday morning (don’t worry, all the kids have been quarantined together for a month now). Not quite in an egg, but two generous blocks into my straw basket. “I ordered too many from Esselunga home delivery,” Maria whispered. “Here, take them. But stir it up with warm water, and give it a little sugar to get started. When it gets nice and foamy, mix up your recipe.” This is like getting a brick of dope in the clink. I was super excited. I carefully tucked them away, out of the sun, and as soon as I got upstairs I got to work on my favorite recipe.

Normally I am opposed to sugar as yeast turbo, but the small block looked pasty and frankly kind of weak compared to the rusty fish food pellets of Fleischmann’s yeast familiar to me from the U.S. I dissolved the bit of yeast in water, wondering if I should add a little more, and then erred on the side of abundance. Fine, I threw in a teaspoon of sugar too. No bubbles No foam. I stirred again, and again. What was this yeast? Finally one lone bubble emerged, but it was hard to tell if it formed only because I was stirring. In the end I mixed my shaggy loaf and covered it. That dough took off like no dough I have ever seen before. It increased more quickly than a contagion in a state that refuses to quarantine due to negative economic impact. The following day I preheated our oven with the box on the maximum setting (250C), and shoveled the shaggy dough into it. It was hard to slide that lid back on when the whole contraption was hot, but I managed to do so without burning myself. And, in the end, the loaf turned out gorgeous, cracking, with a well-structured crumb, so I would term that a success. It made fantastic tomato bruschetta.

I’ll be using the bread baking box again.

Update from Italy: Communicating from Quarantine

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Today marked a day on which Italy is taking a tentative step to move into a new normal, but everything still felt the same. It’s day 36 of the national quarantine. Day 40+ for us, but I am honestly going to stop counting the numbered days, because there is no need for it. This is the new reality. Small pieces might be put back in place, but unlike the Great Pause switch, there will be no Great Restart lever. This will be like having a newborn: you will claw back bits of your life, bit by bit, and when the kid is five, you might see a glimpse of what you were last like when you were four month pregnant with your first child.

Jason is still working full days, and some days, more than that. My work is picking up again, in different ways, and I am glad for some semblance of a less-domestic routine.

But nothing on the outside looks like it has changed. The sun shines into our courtyard. I move my chair around the apartment during the day to sit in its warmth. Drones buzz overhead. Some of them seem like pleasure drones, others seem like law enforcement drones. I wanted to go for a walk yesterday to take out our trash and recycle, but the polizia were on the square, in front of our building, asking people for their permission slips. I did not have one. Sure, we had blank copies upstairs, but that form is an entire page long. I did not feel that my anxiety level and language skills (solid B-level in Italian) were up for the exchange, so sat in the garden and watched Francesca water the plants until the sky started spitting drops.

While in quarantine I have had some totally weird exchanges with people from my past or in outer orbits that left me shaky and sweating. Everyone is depressed and stressed and tender and worried and in grief and struggling. Feelings are raw and just below the surface whether you admit it or not. Filters are erratic and hard to predict. Everything is both shaken and stirred. Emotions are a bit like pathogens: they don’t care if you don’t believe in them; they will continue to surface. It is hard to hear things the right way sometimes when your nerves feel like shattered glass and the worry wakes you up again and again in the middle of the night. It is hard to not misattribute meaning or motive when people pop up to say things. It’s a great time to reach out, but it might not a great time to reach out, you know? People are not bored. There is stress. Everyone is working through the terror and insecurity at their own pace, if at all, and some people are much more burdened than others. I worked remotely for the past years, and cross-culturally for 15 years before that, and I learned one thing: when a conversation lacks context, as would be found in face-to-face interactions. It helps to ask people, at the start of a conversation, is this a good time? How are you doing today? Can we connect? I’d like to connect, if you’re able. Choose words carefully, if you can. Sprinkle in tons of extra niceness with words. Conversations need it. Strange cheerleading is not helpful. Abrupt words are too easily taken sideways.

This is not a linear journey, friends. We’re going to be walking this labyrinth for some time. At times we will all feel very, very alone, but in brief moments of clarity, we will see that about 7 billion people are having these same worries, fears, and grief.

A friend posted this recent thoughtful piece by Jack Kornfield – I’ve been a fan of his writing for years. This really helped me today. I urge you to take a look, if you can.

And no one’s saying you need to be Samuel Pepys, but maybe consider starting a pandemic record for yourself and your kids about what these weeks are like, because we’re all on our own, together, stepping the same dance steps in our own houses and apartments – if we’re lucky. Remember those less fortunate who are unable to practice preemptive quarantine, whether for work or economic reasons. Remember those who are forced to quarantine in an unsafe situation. If you’re safe at home, chances are very good you’ll make it, but what about everyone else?

That’s all I got tonight. Much love to everyone everywhere.

Update from Italy: An Open Letter to LG Health

Anyone else in quarantine feel like strangling their FitBit? Photo by Sem Hovingh on Unsplash

My LG phone has a fitness app, branded LG Health. It’s basically a Fitbit or Google Health, tracking steps and stairs per day. I guess the LG software updates didn’t push out anything pandemic-related, even though LG is based in South Korea, where they’ve taken a few lessons themselves from the novel coronavirus. Today is Day 35 of a nationwide quarantine in Italy (Day 40 for us since we took the soft announcement rather more seriously than millions of other people). Restrictions might slowly, ever so slowly, be lifting tomorrow. The app continues to remind me, in cheery chirps, how much exercise I am not getting. I have grown weary of it, and now frustrated, with this clueless, careless little voice.

Are you taking a little break? Well, LG, it depends on your definition of ‘little break.’ Does it include being in a fourth-floor apartment for more than 35 days in a row? Does it account for national decrees and uniformed polizia in our piazza below, yelling at people to drop off their trash and get back inside subito? Have your testers ever worn a face mask? While necessary, it poses a genuine hindrance to breathing fresh air. That air does not smell fresh.

Right now, I’ll be honest, a ‘little break’ sounds like 45 minutes getting sweaty on an elliptical trainer. Nothing sounds better than that. I’m not really resting here. My lower back aches from sitting around, even when I try to stay active. I miss my bike and fresh air. I fully understand why we’re in quarantine and I am on board, but it’s not easy, and under no terms would I consider this a ‘little break.’ Maybe think about your word choice. Maybe you should take a little break and come back when you have something less snarky to say.

Increase your activity next week and get fit! Believe me, LG Health, there is nothing I would enjoy more. Can it be next week? Wait … Are you talking to the Italian PM, or the Ministry of Health, or Civil Protection? Tell me, LG Health! If you’re holding out on me, and if you actually know I can get more activity next week, but are just choosing not to tell me right now, so help me I will throttle you the next time I see you, and I will be wearing gym shoes and a sports bra.

Great work! You got 841 more steps than usual so far today. Can it, LG Health. I walked 20 laps around a small garden to get that many. I thought you people spied using my phone’s camera lens. Did you see my zoo-like enclosure?

Get started on the life you want! Again, LG Health, if you know something I don’t know, ‘fess up now and I might not delete you. Also, let’s talk about this concept of ‘the life I want.’ You seem to think you know something about it. But, if you must know, forty days in quarantine have given me plenty of time to think about the life I want. I’d like my daily activity to be less related to feelings of headless chickenhood, and more related to a sustainable rhythm. Even my frantic days, pre-pandemic, sometimes did not clear 1500 steps a day. Sure, I was on my bike, but walking from Home to School to Work is a lot more effort than zipping around on my Bianchi.

The life I want in 2020 might include more appropriate text messages from LG Health, perhaps ‘Ways to Get Exercise Indoors.’ Because 10,000 steps a day is soooo pre-pandemic. And the next time my eyes settle on a sweeping territorial view, I will be so overcome with emotion that I will just stand there, for maybe half an hour, in tears.

Swiss Alps, Interlaken. Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Update from Italy: Easter Sunday

Orsanmichele in Florence. Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

An Easter unlike any other many of us have ever seen. Even during wartime (WWII, that distant memory, locked in the hearts of the Old Ones) the churches were open, mass happened.

There was no Easter Vigil last night. No meal after. I haven’t reliably attended Easter Vigil, but when I do, I love it.

I was chatting our priest last night about my very first Episcopal Easter Vigil, in the spring of 1994, when a Knight Templar showed up in full armor with a sword to the tiny St. Anselm’s chapel. I was concerned. He looked like he might slay someone, and I wouldn’t stand a chance. Up, down, kneel, self-muttering. Over and over. But he didn’t slay anyone, that tortured cosplay soul. Where was this? my priest exclaimed. Oklahoma, I said. ‘Nuff said. Easter always over the top. Random people would walk around on Good Friday and Holy Saturday wearing 4×4 rough hewn crosses, offering to help you with getting, for example, your lunch from the counter to the bistro table three feet away. – No, thank you. And go easy with that cross. – Sure thing, my brother.

This year the Pope walks alone, with no followers to physically join him. I saw news of a Via Crucis in Bergamo; it’s still not clear to me how that was accomplished. Much face mask, yes, but also, many people in street. Our own Episcopal church here, St. James of Florence, held an 11:00 AM prayer service online. The sun is unseasonably bright, so we all joke. Why is it every that Easter before this, it was freezing rain. Indeed, last year we got rained out of an agriturismo in Lazio, the weather was freezing the rain would not let up, until even the skeleton staff were half begging us to pack our bags and go home. The year before that, we were bundled up for Easter like it was the Shackleton expedition.

And yet today feels like late June in the garden, where the children gathered to hunt Easter eggs in the garden, in heats by family. Our children were the last to hunt and so all the boisterous, joyful Italian children of the palazzo hid the eggs for Victor and Eleanor, plus the Gran Gallo, a metal egg stuffed with chocolates that blew their minds. I pinched a bouquet of a sole magenta camellia and a bunch of sage blossoms, which I justified by thinking, I am just deadheading these so they don’t get leggy and lose their leaf. Lemon and orange blossom perfumed the air. The morning seemed like it would never end. Gentle chatter filled the air; the cousins all helped Victor and Eleanor, following them with serious hot/cold guidance… “acqua … fuoco… fuoquino .. ACQUA. FUOQISSIMO!” They all went upstairs for lunch before we did and so we inspected the turtles and the blooms and looked in vain for the badminton birdie that Vic had swatted who knows where.

Jason had ordered an Easter meal from a restaurant on Piazza San Marco, L’Accademia. Their history with Gonzaga is long, and we are friendly with the owner, Gianni from Abruzzo, married to a New Yorker, his cheery smile twinkling in the charming gap between his front teeth. He came in a taxi prompt at 1 PM, with aluminum trays covered in foil: lasagna, cannelloni ai spinaci, roast lamb with rosemary and potatoes, chocolate mousse, a generous wedge of pecorino and a jar of chili jam, divine. We opened a nice bottle of wine, even if the kids did not want to join us. Vic was at table with his headphones on, Eleanor turning cartwheels in the living room. Halfway through lunch Maria knocked at the door with a plate of strawberry semifreddo and whipped cream that her mother made fresh this morning, and the kids squeaked in anticipation to witness the sheer red fruitness of it. We paced our courses with leisure, and finished with both semifreddo and mousse, then grappa. Now appeased into oblivion.

Quarantine what quarantine? On Tuesday, Italy will gingerly stretch her limbs, having been asleep since March 9. A few more businesses will open, some people will venture forth on permitted errands. I doubt we personally will put that much more back into our schedule too soon. We are observing Easter safe at home.

Wishing to all observing a joyous Easter, and to everyone around the world, may you be safe at home; and if you’re not, we send you strength.

Update from Italy: Holy Saturday

Photo by Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash

I have always respected time set aside to consider invisible things. For diverse reasons, when I was a child the language and imagery of faith was inaccessible to me, apart from children’s literature (Lewis and L’Engle) and my own native animism that featured earnest petitions over ad hoc forest altars. When I was an older child early high school, I discovered Jung and Campbell. What I lost in infant surety, I gained in systemic understanding: a gift given that I have nurtured since university days. I am grateful for centuries of wisdom of human psychology handed down through generations. My concept of faith has always been inscribed within the framework of myth, tradition, and cultural wisdom.

And so today is the time set aside for the consideration of hopelessness and crisis, disaster and catastrophe, the worst-case scenario come to pass. How, even as three isolated women sat in the sun and wept, hope was quietly laid behind a boulder in a cave. Hope was written into the script. Much was lost, but more was to be gained.

We’re well into the second month of the Italian quarantine. Last night the Italian PM, Giuseppe Conte, gave a presser to announce the tentative, gentle reawakening to daily life. It won’t look as it did before. These are baby steps. Starting April 14, stores that sell book, or children’s clothes, can open, as can optometrists, and merchants of fragrance (so Italian). Stationers will be allowed to resume business. Here’s the full list, in Italian, which also includes all the businesses that have been operating in the total lockdown. There will be no casual public access, however. Every activity not on the list will remain as is until at least May 3, after the huge public holidays here of April 25 and May 1. This means bars, cafés, restaurants, and parks will be shuttered, along with all other retail not specifically mentioned; salons, gyms, and any business that requires close personal contact must remain closed, along with nonprofits like churches. This news comes as Italy has had a second-day increase in reported infections, since they rolled out even broader testing in the past few days – something like 100,000 tests since midweek. If infections spike after April 14, they might draw down measures, or enforce testing and isolation to anyone symptomatic or whose name appears on a trace list. I think this is our new reality until summer 2021.

We are holding up alright. The children have adjusted more or less well to the new reality. Victor is much more willing to do his classwork, even if Italy struggles to launch road scholastic use of platforms like Google Classroom or Zoom. Victor’s first class featured everyone on camera and open mic for an hour. You can imagine how well this worked. I advised him to turn off his mic and camera. People who are unused to tech think these private products are like magic with unlimited bandwith and scale capacity. Invisible Victor was soon moaning from his armchair. “This meeting is hell,” he WhatsApped me from his phone to where I sat 15 feet away. “Don’t you dare mute the audio, Vic!” I yelled. “You get absolutely no credit for attending this class meeting if you mute the audio.” His eyes started to turn red and his lip trembled. “I’m sorry, Victor,” I said, softening. “Now you know what mommy and daddy are doing when we are working on our laptops. Get used to it; this might be your job in twenty years.” “Ugh!” he yelled. “I hate this!”

Jason and I have struggled with some itchy anxiety late this week. It’s a lot to be inside, even as I continue to find and name new sunny corners in our apartment. A friend in Chicago sent me this useful new work:

Futless (Hawaiian Pidgin English Definition) – (futliss) Definition: antsy; restless; frustrated
Pidgin: We go already. Daniel stay all futless already.
English: Let’s get out of here already. I think Daniel is getting pretty restless.

I’ve had a weird anxiety headache on the left side of my head for weeks, where the methodical left brain has been taxed as its routines are erased and replaced by fuzzy survival skills. The left side of my cheek is raw and chewed; this probably also happens at night, when stress rises to the top. At-home yoga resulted counterproductive in addressing lower backache that comes from being inside 23 hours a day. The trampoline workouts were too much; perhaps they might be modified for daily exertion. Jason and Victor both get rabbity eyes when they fill with worry, and they look like stressed Easter bunnies. My nights are filled with bizarre and disjointed dreams I am unable to shake off come daylight.

We did get to spend a couple hours in the back garden yesterday, which was magnificent, filled with sun and blooming gardenias and potted lemon trees. But we cannot take outdoor walks. We cannot go anywhere other than the short list: grocery store, pharmacy. The hospital, as needed. The police are constantly in piazza, monitoring and reprimanding; I hear them shouting on their bullhorns from our apartment. The medical face masks the city council recently distributed, while necessary, are far from comfortable, and must be worn in public. On Friday night we all gathered at the window to watch a black drone buzz over our roof. I thought it might be a private drone getting prized footage of an empty city. No way, said Jason. That’s a police drone. It hummed and whizzed, zooming in, panning out. Some random guy who lives two buildings over was on his rooftop terrazza, shirtless and wearing Oakleys. Look at that naked man! Eleanor screamed. He’s only shirtless, I said, then saw that the wall hit him at about waist level, so perhaps he was naked. I did not point this out to Eleanor. Good for him. It was a sunny evening.

So back to the mythology of those three women sitting by the rock, wondering what was going on in the cave. What can we learn from them, by watching them?

They thought all was lost. And in a way, it was. But in another important way, hope returned, and it was mind-bending. People just could not wrap their minds around it, because Hope required that they give up so much. Everything, really. People kept trying to script Hope the way they thought that Hope should read, because they wanted everything they already had plus for everything to get even better and more advantageous for them as people. But invisible Hope had other plans. That’s not how Hope works, and it is not how a seismic shift works. I feel that is where we all are right now in the pandemic. It is so tempting to script Hope. In reality all we can do is wait and trust, and support one another.

Wishing everyone a contemplative Holy Saturday. May you find time to consider the unseen, and may it reveal its rich gifts to you.

I Speak Cloaked in Silence

Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

If you mortals could but know

The dreams that I dreamed eons ago

Of flowing lava, magma glow

Sloping down hills of slag in crimson streams.

How I yearned to be born!

To call out, Yawn and bring me forth.

To this hot rock, swept through space

If you will but yield me, I will cloak it

In protection. Transparent my embrace.

Millennia did I wait. It took some time,

But the crust slurried up her ghost

Breathing me forth like a Delphic vapor.

I sinuously wound around each tree, 

Thinness replaced by abundant air,

Holding space for jungles stuffed with ferns and palms.

Enormous monsters roared and tangled.

Time and again a volcano might spurt,

Or ice cover the earth. The record will show.

Let the record show. Let the record show.

I continued to breathe.

The sphere still spinning, gently slowing. 

Then! The chuffing! The endless grey plumes,

The tiny fires covering the planet.

How it heated, until the particles clung

To my invisible lungs. 

Great chasms gaped at the north and the south.

And then, one year. Just before spring tilted back.

It went quiet down there.

Down there! What do I say? 

My nose kisses the ground each day,

Yet my myopia went unregistered.

So much did I see: no one saw me.

My lungs cleared. I could breathe once more. 

The green below filling my silent heart with joy,

My old friends the plants come back.

Flocks took wing. Even the water cleared,

And reflected me back in it, polishing my mirror.

I covered the surface in an infinite clasp, 

Grateful for this memory recaptured, this moment

I swore I’d never return here again.

May the crust’s activity, when it resumes, 

Creep slowly, and hold space for me.

Update from Italy: As Related by The Lone Tree on Via della Colonna

Photo by David Vig on Unsplash

It started gradually, then happened all at once. Via della Colonna slowly emptied of pedestrians, then cars, then the taxis numbered fewer and fewer. The endless parade of city buses continued, though they too carried fewer and fewer riders, masked citizens whose eyes looked anxious, then worried, then fearful, the bus drivers gripping their steering wheel with a set jaw behind masks and scarves wrapped tight around their necks. Everyone stopped smiling.

The street chatter quieted, then slowed, then also stopped. No more did people pass underneath the arch of the foundling orphanage, speaking loudly into their phones. No more clutches of high school students on their walk to and from school twice a day: in the morning, back and forth for lunch, then home when classes were done, always shouting and shoving. No more parents with toddlers riding in tiny seats on the backs and fronts of bikes, wearing helmets like the tops of colorful eggshells.

The throngs of tourists, students, and residents that usually crowd Piazza Santissima Annunziata dwindled away before they finally disappeared. The piazza is running a photography deficit of at least ten thousand shots per day taken by tourists armed with fancy cameras, or daytrippers angling their phones. Buy a postcard! I always felt like shouting, but I said nothing, held my bark. The university students celebrating their graduation with festive pomp did not return for months. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss their confetti cannons, the pop fizz spray of their celebratory prosecco, the young women teetering about in five-inch stilettos, laughing with their friends, the laurel crown fastened firmly round their head with a red ribbon. The steps of the orphanage and the convent, usually packed on sunny afternoons, remain deserted. Even the beggars under the arches of church were chased home by the carabinieri. No tourists gasp in wonder when they see, for the first time, the ruddy dome rising like a sun at the end of Via dei Servi. 

I’m far from the oldest tree in town, but I’ve seen a lot of life during my days. To my relief the birds have returned in droves, all kinds,  to populate my branches, keep me company, perhaps a new bird per each person now in hiding. They sing, they build new nests, they flit among the dogwoods and irises in the gardens of the Museo Archeologico; you’ve never seen so many nestled eggs, peaceful and warm in anticipation of a whisper-calm hatching season and a silent summer. And my leaves now unfurling breathe easily, inhaling deeply, in this quiet street. I miss the bustle, but I will confess to you now, this life feels easier for me.