the land of instincts

Il prima colazione alla Pasticceria Buscioni, con un cane.

My days in Florence, Italy knit themselves together something like this:

  • Wake. Try to, anyway. Jetlag suuuucks. Every morning, I feel as if I am heroic in dragging myself out of bed.
  • Shower, get dressed, etc.
  • Stop by Pasticceria Buscioni per prendere un caffè. I love this little place beyond reason. Piero, the owner, is so friendly. Andreo, the barista, makes the best cappuccinos I’ve had in Italy–he completely understands the perfect composition of milk and espresso and temperature.
  • Grab the #17 or the #11, whichever happens to be handy, into Piazza San Marco.
  • Walk down Via Cavour and...wait for it…wait for it…wait for it…the Duomo finally comes into view. White and pink and green marble, all of the ornate design, this massive building ascending into the sky. It makes me smile, every time. There is something about the Duomo that makes me think: “Yes, this is my city.”
  • Walk, or write, or people-watch.

Walk? Write? People watch? Italy, for me, is a land of instincts. This is the biggest thing I am hoping to share with my retreat participants who arrive soon: that to travel well, I believe, means to get present to oneself. Eat when you want to eat. Walk when you want to walk and sit when you want to sit. Sleep when you want to sleep (okay, except when you’re fighting the forces of jetlag). This means that sometimes my days look like walking for five minutes, stopping to sit and write, walking for an hour, stopping to have a frizzante and people-watch, or holing up inside somewhere for hours.

I’ve visited the Uffizi and L’Accademia before, and they are both exceptional museums, but Renaissance art is not what draws me here. Really, I just want the language and the break and the time to read and write.

To that end, sometimes I spend an hour in an Italian bookstore, opening books to random pages to see how much I can read. I am far better this time around, but of course I alternately am proud and then, other times, see just how far I have to go. Just recently I began to notice myself accidentally inserting Italian words into my English and suddenly hesitating a moment before spelling something in English–starting to write “messagio” instead of “message,” things like that.

But I have learned that this is a good thing. I’m currently reading Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich, the story of a woman who spends a year in India learning (duh) Hindi, and perhaps my favorite part of the book is that it’s not a travel diary so much as it’s writing about what it means to learn a language. Part of her program was complete immersion in Hindi–no English allowed, no English radio, no English spoken by her host family. This state, she calls, “Half language,” because:

In half language, you’re half what you were, half an overgrown child. You speak like a child, are received as a child. In this other state, you lose abilities.

‘I was amazed at how quickly my English…’

‘Fell apart?’ a cognitive neuroscientist named Arturo Hernandez, who’d also done time aborad, said, and laughed. This was a year or two after my return, and we were comparing notes. ‘There’s this very weird thing that happens when your language starts to bust apart. It’s because there’s language in your head and there’s language in the environment.’ The one absorbs the other, he explained, the external one filters into your thoughts, becomes, to some extent, your inner one.

Ah! I thought when I read this. So this is what’s happening. This is why suddenly I’ll find myself thinking in sentences that are these odd compositions of half English and half Italian. This has not happened on any of my prior trips.

Dammit though, if I still find i riflessivi (the reflexive) and i reciproci (the reciprocal) so freaking frustrating. I study both and on paper, I get it. Totally. Then, if I’m in a situation where I need to say, “We spoke to each other”? Forget it. My mouth trips over the words.

The language I speak best in Italy is the language of food, because it’s where I’ve had the most experience in speaking, of course–ordering food in restaurants. But oddly, I don’t really get off on Italian food. Frankly, I don’t really like all of the white flour, and for 3 months prior to coming here, I hadn’t had any dairy. No milk, no cheese. The only reason I’m having bread or dairy now is because my food options would be so severely limited, otherwise. I’ve tried gastronomia on previous visits to Italy, but being stuffed full of food is just not a turn-on for me. Nor is wine, really, because I can have stomach problems after drinking it. Even gelato is not on my radar so much, since I drastically reduced my sugar intake.

What does get me happy is biking the ramparts that surround Lucca, or those moments when I’m able to intelligently communicate and have actual conversations in Italian–which, thrillingly, happens now. The light this morning, as I walked to Buscioni’s, a filtered light that had me wishing I could take portraits just to see that light on someone’s face, the cypress trees. The air was crisp in that warm autumn way, and the remnants of fireplace smoke that had burned that night before was fragrant.

My priorities become different here. Not the acquisition of things or a well-decorated home or how to “balance it all.” Just the simplicity of one clear morning is enough.

Guest Post: Pixie Campbell

Note: I typically don’t accept guest posts. In this case, I was in Italy leading a Courageous Play retreat!

Allegiance by Pixie Campbell

Naming the sensitive,
which tickles up into the horizon
from the dark guts
of blessed insight
is the easy part.

Whispers of aspirations
(like a wheat field in a prairie breeze)
amidst the crowded social media lounges:
a single word scrawled onto a journal cover
photos of arms in an open V,
a promise to make. Period.
And then, “There. I said it.”

A tender, nourishing, stem uncurls
(like a new fiddlehead)
spring-green, come-hither finger
Someone hangs his wizened head,
removes a bedecked crown,
as space in the sky is commanded
by an infantile tickle on the wind.

Reaching for the eastern sun,
(like a sacred trailhead to new beginnings)
that germinating notion
has, in no time at all, kicked a grailfoot
squarely between the ribs
Having swelled
for a month of Sundays
following the breakthrough

And beyond the brutal honesty
alongside tearful conversations,
the intimate admissions,
the recovery of lost treasures,
the hopeful for
the logical against.
Beyond sleeplessness and reflux
lies a castle.

Over shaded woods of fear and doubt,
the convicted presses on
across a courtyard stuck full of arrows
through a labyrinth walled with tiny flowers
Up onto a treacherous ascending drawbridge and
down a marbled hall,
to the glistening throne
where the reeded basket rests.

A mysterious Seeker enters
wiping a brow, kneeling
bowing to surrender
to the most tender,
innocent, infant king.
A most gentle and swaddled,
promising, tiny king.

“A dynamic struggle goes on within a person between what he or she consciously thinks on one hand and, on the other, some insight, some perspective that is struggling to be born. The insight is then born with anxiety, guilt, and the joy and gratification that is inseparable from the actualizing of a new idea or vision. The guilt that is present when this breakthrough occurs has its source in the fact that the insight must destroy something.”

-Rollo May, The Courage to Create

conoscere bene : to know well

Conoscere bene : To know well. This is the literal translation; it is entirely possible that with my somewhat limited grasp of Italian, this phrase is used idiomatically and has an entirely deeper meaning. But there I am (or, at least, there are my feet), standing above these words in my purple Birkenstocks (purchased last summer in Italy), the Italian words catching my attention in an immediate way.

Some people go to Italy to eat, to see famous sites, to view Renaissance art, to walk the ruins.

I go to rest.

It has taken me a long time to embrace that. The inner critic voices that it’s ridiculously self-indulgent, that I should figure out some way of resting that doesn’t involve a trans-continental airline ticket, have been loud. But the truth is that every year since I’ve been an adult, I’ve gone on some kind of prolonged rest, whether it’s to New Mexico, to a Zen Center, to Paris, to Italy. I take a few weeks out of the year to drop everything and just BE with no agenda.

I’m not alone in needing rest; in fact, most people are even more in need of it than I am. We are a culture that spins ourselves into a flurry of comparisons and one-upmanship and trying to keep up with something that I’m not even entirely sure is defined for most people.

Here are the signs:

1.) Constantly taking on projects, telling yourself you’ll feel really great once you finish them, then not feeling particularly celebratory upon completing them, and then taking on yet another project.

2.) Yoga, meditation, and other “relaxing activities feel like more to-do list items.

2.) You’re getting sick..


How to know yourself

We’ve got to honor ourselves and our needs, in order to know ourselves intimately. No one really gets to know “who” they are when they’re subverting play, rest, down time, rejuvenation, or pushing their physical and emotional hungers to the back-burner.

When you realize that you’ve gone overboard and burn-out is fizzling you out, fast, it’s time to do the following:

1.) Go back to the drawing board with examining (or clarifying, if you’ve never done it before) your values. Values-clarification is a huge part of The Courageous Living Program, precisely because as you start to practice courage, you’re going to make tough choices. As you’re making those tough choices, there will inevitably be pros and cons to any choice. It won’t be as black-and-white as “one is bad and the other is good.”

Values clarification is an important tool for making stronger decisions. It takes you out of externalizing your happiness and making choices because of money or social approval, and puts you straight into making a choice based on whether or not it honors who you are.

Do you take on that new project? Does it honor your personal values?
Do you continue with that relationship? Does it honor your personal values?
Do you start now, or wait a year? Does it honor your personal values?

2.)Examine where you can start practicing more acceptance. How many of us get pissed when things don’t go the way we want them to, and let defeat/discouragement follow on its heels? Even when you clarify your personal values, there are going to be things that you can’t control. Trying to get more control will just tie you up in knots.

What freedom will come from practicing acceptance?


Rest is an action step

When you’ve been working too hard for awhile, you need rest.

That’s it.

No two ways around it. If you don’t take the time that you need to rest, you are officially bullshitting yourself.

I now have three levels of rest that I bring into my life. Yours might look a little bit different, but I share my own as a jumping off place for you to start.

Level One: I take time to breathe, every day, and I make time to read most days. These are ways of slowing down that are simple and easy to integrate. I do this even if it’s only five minutes. We all have five minutes.

Level Two: Short, cheap getaways. My husband and I have made this an art form. Sometimes it’s driving away on a day trip. Sometimes it’s spending a night elsewhere. They’re cheap and inexpensive and often spontaneous. Sometimes just going to a new neighborhood in San Francisco with my camera is enough. Whatever it is, I am convinced that all of us need a visual break from our day-to-day settings.

Level Three: Once a year, I get out of town completely for at least a week. Again, this need not be particularly expensive, and when I have prioritized saving up and making the time, doors open. Someone once told me, “Always pay for experiences, not things.” A significant portion of my budget each year goes towards taking this time away.

How are you making it a point to create stillness in your life? Where are you giving yourself the gift of getting away? How might that sort of investment pay rich rewards in your life?

Know someone who could use some encouragement to rest? Click to tweet: Rest is an Action Step.