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Nothing Is Forever

I woke up this morning thinking, “Wow! I am in Venice!” I hope I never lose the wow factor about travel, but I must admit that after a month on the road in unfamiliar places, in languages without cognates and with spellings that look like a tossed salad of letters, it is very, very nice to be back in more familiar territory.

At one time my Italian was good enough to say whatever I wanted with minimal errors and not have to work around what I hadn’t learned yet. Now it kicks in immediately, but only at a basic level. If you have studied a foreign language to any great extent, you will probably understand what I mean when I say I know exactly how to say something, I just don’t know the words. I can remember when to use the imperfect and the subjunctive and how to conjugate them, but I can’t remember the verb. I know how to conform adjectives to nouns, I just can’t remember the adjective or noun. The vocabulary does jump back to mind somewhat if I concentrate, and there is always a dictionary, so knowing how to “work” the language is really far more important. It’s fun to figure out how to say what I want and even more fun to be understood, and even yet more fun to get the response in Italian that lets me know I didn’t bungle it too badly. The more they say and the quicker they say it, the more successful I have been. But all that is just an aside to what I want to say about Venice and my relationship to it.

Venice has been a complicated city for me. It was the scene of some of my toxic first husband’s most atrocious behavior and thus remained a bleak memory for me for a long time. It was also—and this is still so hard to say—the place I was again a few years later, when I still had not learned that my son Adriano had taken his life. That day I had been in an art glass shop chatting in Italian with the owner, a young man whose family had run the business for several generations. He told me a story about breaking something as a child, and how over time one comes to understand that “Niente e per sempre,” nothing is forever. I agreed, bought a pretty little glass dish for Adriano and caught the train back to Florence, where I was living.

This was in the days when you had to go to an Internet cafe to get email. I got home late that night to several desperate messages. Urgent. Call home immediately. I packed up overnight and was gone the next day. That was when I learned my first huge lesson about nothing lasting forever. I don’t think one ever recovers from a lesson that cruel. I have just moved on, changed into the version of myself that deals with an upended life.

Later visits to Venice have done a lot to soften the feelings of sadness and loss that have overcome me in the past. A wonderful visit with my second husband Jim in a foggy January so cold it snowed a dusting of white onto the sleek black gondolas (see photos). A fantastic night years later with my friend Susan at the Redentore festival, with giant golden fireworks over the lagoon.

Snow on the gondolas



And this visit. I walked around last evening and realized after about an hour that I hadn’t raised up the sad memories at all. I hadn’t raised the happy ones either. I simply was in Venice, on these stones, surrounded by these canals, these people. Maybe just being happy in the present is the most profound sign of healing we can possibly hope for.

And then there is the future. Mine feels circumscribed by the fact that I need to be in Barcelona in three weeks to catch my ship. Other than that, it is a beautiful jumble of possibilities. But I remember the moment in that shop, when that young man, who would be more than two decades older now, reminded me that “niente e per sempre.” The best reason of all to rejoice that I am here now.

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One Ferry at a Time

The most difficult course I ever taught was English 101, recognized by many names and course  numbers as Freshman Composition. At my college, it was a transfer-level course in which the main goal was to take students’ mastery beyond the short personal-opinion essay into the realm of the research-based writing that would be required when they made the transition to four-year institutions.  

Their expressions ranged from disbelief to terror when I told them that they would be writing an 8-10 page paper, properly formatted, with sources properly cited, on a subject they had researched over the course of the semester.  “Oh, hell no,” I could see many of them thinking.  Ten pages???? But you know what?  They did it.  And later, when I would run into them here and there in town, they would comment on how proud and confident it had made them to know that when they handed in their first paper at university they had done it right.

So how do Freshman Comp instructors get them there?  One small step at a time.  I used to tell them that we can always perceive a problem in a way that makes it too big to take on.  We can also break it down into little, solvable ones.  Can they research their whole topic?  Way too scary, but they can research a tiny piece of it, maybe just the answer to one little question they have about it.

Can they write ten pages?  That’s practically a book to some of them. But can they write one paragraph on some part of their subject they are confident they understand? Easy. Then can they write another?  Everyone writes that way—one word, sentence, paragraph, page at a time. The difference as we mature as writers is partly stronger skills but the biggest change is in our confidence that we can handle any writing task put to us. We get to that level of confidence one accomplishment at a time.

This morning I waited for my ferry from Hvar to Split, Croatia next to this sculpture of a contemplative young girl. Maybe she made me a little contemplative too, as I started writing this post on the ferry an hour or so later.

It’s a long way in space and time from here to those Freshman Comp classes I taught, but I realized the process and the lesson are the same.  When I decided to travel on my own for seven weeks, using only public transportation, in places I hadn’t been, where they speak languages I don’t  understand, I’ll admit I was intimidated.  The whole idea of being confronted with an unfamiliar train station or a bus depot or a ferry port, hauling a suitcase that, despite my success in whittling down to one medium sized bag, is still heavy and cumbersome—well, it kind of freaked me out.

And here’s where my past teaching experience came back to help me with a lesson I  had once taught  to others.  I don’t  have to think about everything I will have to do on this journey.  Today, I just had to get on this ferry.  Then when I get to port, I have to find a cab that will take me to my hotel.  Over and done for a few days.  Then I can do something similar when I travel to the next place, and the next. I’ve seen a few spots on my itinerary where I have made it harder on myself than I needed to, so I changed the plan.  I’ve added, subtracted, tweaked, and thoroughly revised at least a dozen times to make this trip something to rejoice in every step of the way. 

 I can do this. And here’s more proof: I am posting this from my bed in my hotel in Split. I did today without a hitch. I will do tomorrow and the next day too. Call me Travelwoman!

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Nesters and Perchers

There are lefties and righties, innies and outies, conservatives and liberals, introverts and extroverts—all sorts of ways we seem to divide into either/or.  Sure, it’s not totally true—we are all unique amalgams—but nevertheless it seems there are ways we naturally divide.

I’ve noticed one of these divisions between what I call nesters and perchers.  Nesters are those who thrive by creating a comfort zone they either are in or know they are returning to. Their home is a place that reflects who they are and where they have been, and makes them feel centered and most comfortably themselves.  They often put a lot of time, energy, and money into improving their nest, and once settled in, they tend to stay for a long time.

Then there are perchers.  Perchers get antsy in one place. They thrive on change and the stimulation of new environments.  They believe they may be missing something if they stick around one place too long.  They invest less in where they live because it’s little more than a necessity and convenience. Perchers are pretty much okay wherever they are.  That is, until they aren’t anymore. Then they go someplace else.

My guess is if there were a graph with Extreme Percher and Extreme Nester at opposite ends, most people would be able to point to where they fall on the continuum.  Some perchers might even have a place that’s very much  like a nest, but feel rather non-committal about it. Some nesters enjoy travel or other time away, but it is very important to them that home is waiting for them. My guess is few would place themselves at either extreme.

Where we are changes over the course of our lives as well.  Maybe we lose our nest, and realize we don’t really need another.  Or maybe the opposite—a vagabond who says “ Enough. I’m sticking around.”  Maybe what makes us happy, what makes us authentic, should be in flux as we move through life.

I think I have always been a percher.  Even in the years when I was raising my children, I never felt anything about the house we lived in.  When I was in a new place I always wondered what it would be like to live there. I often fantasized about other cities and countries I might live in. (I still do.) I had a house in the San Bernardino mountains that I did indeed care deeply about, but when it became impractical and I decided to sell, I was surprised at how easy it was to leave it behind.

I am writing about this today because this  travel experience has clarified something about perching.  Picture a bird on a twig.  It knows it is just there for a second.  It is waiting for what’s next. I feel that way every day.  I love living in the present, but I am excited about the opportunity for something different tomorrow. My center of gravity is constantly shifting just as that little bird’s is. There are only two states of being for me—balancing on the twig or flight to what’s next. Together they are my comfort zone.

I loved this Victor Hugo poem as a child. I guess I was a percher even then.

Be like the bird, who 

Halting in his flight 

On limb too slight 

Feels it give way beneath him, 

Yet sings 

Knowing he has wings.

A place to perch and wings. That’s all I need. At least for now.  But isn’t now what perching’s all about?