Sunday, September 27, 2009

In Venice, Eyes of Wonder

I arrived sleepless in Italy, greeted by long security lines and dogs sniffing for drugs and explosives. But the brilliant Venetian sun, magnified by the sea, hypnotized me the moment I stepped from the airport. It sent me reeling. I made my way to the dock where I settled into a water taxi and before I was ready the craft had dispatched me to the canal-side hotel.

I buried myself in the work. These were not happy days. The marriage was not going well, to put it mildly, and I did not know what to do about that. Divorce was out of the question, I thought. At 34, I felt old before my time, shriveled, absent from myself.

So, on the first day of the conference, I stared sulking from a window while the techs tried to make the computers work. I glanced down to see a couple of heavily armed soldiers watching. One was gesturing to me. Was I in trouble? Leaning on something forbidden? I looked closer. He was blowing kisses. The other was smiling, broadly. I blushed! I laughed. I returned the air kiss.

Venice had only begun to charm. In the mornings, I got up early and made my way to the conference site. Strains of opera drifted from alleyways. Had someone left on the stereo and a window open? Was an opera singer up early, practicing? No, I was being serenaded by the garbage collector.

And my commute. No road rage, no packed underground subways. I walked from my hotel to St. Mark’s Square, where I boarded a vaporetto that cruised on the water to the conference site on the Lido. At night, I returned the same way. The gentle rocking, the sweet mesh of waves in the lagoon washing away every last vestige of workday frustration.

By that hour, I was more than ready for the Venetian night. For enjoying the friends I was rapidly meeting. For adventures in food. The food, northern Italy’s pure flavors, unsullied by layers of sauce or other attempts to gild the lily. I will never forget this food and crave it to this day. Only once, in Chicago, in a small, quiet restaurant that a young nephew led us to, have I ever come close.

I walked and walked and walked. At home, I am known for having a terrible sense of direction, being constantly lost. But in Venice, I knew where to go, by instinct. Some streets in the city of bridges and dark, twisty passages weren't marked at all, or if they were, the signs probably were from half a century ago, I was told. Directions rarely made sense. Maps quickly became outdated.

But I felt confident there. So, people soon were stopping me in the street, asking for directions. Italians too. "Non parlo italiano," I was forced to confess. Often, they looked at me skeptically, then hustled away as I repeated "Scusi!" to their retreating backs.

All too soon, it was time to go. I was crushed by this. The work had been good, the food, the fellowship stimulating. And I never want to leave the water anyway. But Venice had revived me in such a way that I simply did not want to go back to my life. To the problems. To the marriage I knew in my heart of hearts would not survive.

But I packed up because I had to, could not delay another day. I had one last lovely breakfast on the small patio at the front of the hotel -- tapping the shell of the soft-boiled egg nestled in a flowered egg cup, spreading butter on the soft bread with chewy crust, pouring hot milk from a small white pitcher into a steaming cup of steaming, strong coffee.

My bags were brought down and I settled up with the front desk.

I stood there in dread. I worried my heart would grow heavy again with the same weight I had brought there. That I would lose the transfusion of life Venice had given me.

And then it happened.

A young man who worked at the hotel, who barely spoke English, rushed to me in the moment before I stepped into the boat holding steady in the canal at the side of the hotel.

“Signora?” he said.


“You are leaving?”


And in that moment, he brought forward the arm he had been holding behind his back. In his hand was a bouquet of tiny pink roses. Shyly, he handed them to me.

I did not know what to say. This young man had waited on my colleagues and me a couple of days at breakfast. I practiced the few words of Italian I had learned with him, encounters that lasted minutes in all. We had barely spoken. He was quite young. I looked around, thinking he had made a mistake, that he wanted to give the flowers to someone else. But who really? I had seen people leave throughout my stay and had seen no flowers.

In the end, I could say only one thing, since I did not speak his language and he barely spoke mine. And there was no time.

I said “grazie. They are beautiful.” Over and over I said this. I held out my hand and he took it and we stood for a moment. He bowed at the waist and helped me into the vessel. And the craft sputtered and strained, slicing through the canals and the foam, into the saltwater lagoon and finally the sea.

I held onto the roses for dear life. Through the boat ride, onto the airplane. I clutched them as we hurtled through the air to Paris, on another leg of my temporary assignment abroad. I was meeting my husband there, and forgive me, but the truth is I was not looking forward to that.

The roses held me together, somehow. A floral embrace, they kept me floating in the sun, water and music of an ancient, sinking city where I took my first full breath in many years. Where I saw myself in a mirror and for a moment did not recognize myself because I was so caught up in the full flush of marvel. And where, simply and unexpectedly, for a short time but more than enough, I was looked upon again with the freeing, glorying, rejuvenating eyes of wonder.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Lies I Told Myself

I forgot most of the truth I knew by the time I graduated from college. My recovery took a long time even to begin. And it is still a work in progress.

I made up ridiculous things and believed them. For instance, during one of our heated moments, I told Mother that she was "afraid of life." I was in my early 20s and on my way to Paris on vacation, which caused a spat I won't detail. She was wrong about some things, but not others, and if I had remembered even a few truths, I could have saved myself and others a great deal of heartache down the road.

This is what I said during our heated scene: "You and Daddy don't know anything about the world. You hide from it. You are afraid of life."

They knew plenty about the world. Mother, 89 now, admits she doesn't care much for change. She's not alone in that. But the truth is her actions did not teach me or anyone else to shrink from the world.

Take the blue holes, for instance.

My siblings and I learned to swim in rivers and creeks. Mother got us acclimated to the water early, even when the water wasn't really warm. She held us aloft on outstretched arms and talked us through the stroking and kicking. After a certain amount of time, none of us yet school age, Daddy led us into the middle of golden green water rippling in sunlight that threaded through trees lining muddy banks. And he let us go.

We thrashed violently, went under, swallowed water, coughed and screamed. Then instinct and self-preservation took over. As Daddy walked backwards, eyes carefully on bobbing heads, we grasped desperately for the hands he held out just beyond our reach, then triumphantly as the instructions from Mother kicked in and our brains connected with limbs. At last, we were swimming.

Even then, in rural Alabama, there were swimming pools around. But why flail around in small concrete tubs of chemicals when so much sweet natural abundance was available. We never knew what we would find at creeks, rivers and lakes, which were alive with possibility. A heavy summer rain made the water run swift and hard, while a dry spell meant lazy drifting on inner tubes.

A day on the living water never yielded the same result. Were the little round eggs I found peeking from the side of a sandy creek bank snake eggs or turtles? And that little dark snake bobbing his way toward me over the tiny rapids -- poisonous or not? Best to run first and ponder it out later.

And the rope swings and grape vines. Think of it -- holding onto one of these, we would take a running jump and soar from a cliff or bank over the vast water many feet below and then drop. It was exhilarating, making that first jump and surviving. Then climbing up the banks to the top, swinging out over and over again, dropping endlessly into the dark, cold water below.

There were no life guards to keep us from doing senseless things. So we learned to self-police, to look out for each other, to administer first aid with what we had on hand. We kept injuries from our parents and took care to minimize bloody evidence so we could go back. I still carry scars from cuts that should have been stitched up.

So, raised on creek, lake and river swimming practically from birth, we always wanted to explore new ones when traveling. "Mother, can we find a creek today? A river maybe?" She almost always obliged.

More than once, she showed us what she was made of on these trips.

I remember scrambling from the back of a car deep in the Tennessee wilds, bent on beating everyone to the water's edge. I ran clutching a towel, long grass whipping arms and legs, bare feet slapping the cold, hard dirt path.

I heard them before I saw them. Low, coarse voices, curses, a laugh, something making a fast jittery clicking. I stopped, the sweat on my upper lip, neck, forehead running cold.

Men blocked the trail. They wore overalls and rumpled work clothes, squatted, slouched in and around the path, their faces mostly covered by straw hats, crumpled up cloth ones. Some were yelling at a pair of dice on the ground. And nearly all were holding or drinking or wiping backs of dusty hands across mouths after sipping from canning jars filled with clear liquid.

They glared at the girl who had interrupted them. Their break from harsh labor, or forgetting about none to be found, mouths to feed, of the pious and rules they never wanted and chafed under. For a few stolen hours under the cover of brush near a creek nobody bothered to go to much anymore. Until that afternoon. Until that shivering little pest of a girl.

I turned to run, calling for Mother. My voice high and breaking. But Mother, walking a brisk pace in front of her niece, who had also brought her children, did not break stride. She kept her eyes on the water. She was comfortable there and would not be intimidated. She had grown up in that countryside, roaming with older brothers and her childhood friend Bish. Bish, who asked her to marry him before going off to fight against Hitler. But he didn't come back. His plane ditched in the English Channel and he drowned.

That day, Mother brushed by me and walked straight on the path. I remember grabbing her skirt tail, something I had not done for years, probably pushing my sister away from her traditional position. My grown cousin walked behind in silence with her four little children, one of them a baby.

I should not have been surprised by Mother's nonchalance. It had been only recently that a man acting a fool menaced our car on the back roads of Tennessee. The man's car hit ours in the back. I remember being very afraid as Mother pulled over, got out and went to inspect. The man got out of his car and snarled. He was wiry thin, in jeans and cowboy boots. And I could smell the whiskey a car length away.

Then she turned to him. "Why did you hit my car?" A look of surprise on his face and the bluster dissolved. She told him there was no damage. She would not be calling the police or the insurance company. On one condition: That he go home immediately and lay off the bottle. "Yes m'am," he said over and over, "I shorely am so very sorry, m'am, just beggin' yore pardon, m'am." Then he mentioned he was grateful Jesus had spared them from injury and damage. Which was enough. And Mother drove us away.

With that same resolve, she held steady at the sun-dappled creek. She kept her eyes on the water, which was just hidden by lush green foliage in a Middle Tennessee made even more luminous by summer.

Seeing her, the men suddenly began to move away from the path, hats came off, fruit jars wordlessly whisked from sight. Several nodded to Mother as we passed, others averted their eyes. She nodded back, ever so slightly moving her head.

But she kept her eyes on the water and hustled everyone ahead of her, following along last.

Maybe someone recognized Mother. She had been gone from Tennessee only a few years at that point.

But she wasn't about to be thwarted from her day at the creek. Not because she wanted to swim. I've never seen her in the water except when she was teaching us. I think now she was intent on making sure we could swim in all conditions, even in colder weather sometimes, to make sure we could handle it. She said Bish's drowning made no sense, that he was an excellent swimmer. She may have wondered whether the cold killed him.

And it's funny, my brother built a house on a creek bank, another on a lake. I go to the water every chance I get. It breathes life into me when I've hit bottom. And when I'm happy, it is the first thing I think of, getting to the water, I breathe easier there, in every way.

When Mother goes, she sits and watches, like I do. Her eyes scan the landscape, settling on small bobbing waves, then moving down into the depths. She is drawn to the water because she has been searching all these years.

And I understand now, finally, that she is waiting. And that she is most certainly not afraid

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Cat, Crosses, And Moonlight

I wasn't going to tell this story, ever, I banished it more than 30 years ago. But last week at dinner, I told S. we had gone to a restaurant that felt haunted, which shifted the talk to ghost stories. J. tuned us out, so there it was, without warning, looming in my mind's eye. The old resistance was abruptly worn away.

So I'm sitting now with the filmy shawl I wear when I need comfort draped across my shoulders, skimming my bare arms, partly wrapped around my wrists. I rustled around searching for it before I started the telling. Even though I wasn't cold. I needed it because I was beginning to shiver just a bit, a fine, barely perceptible tremor in my very core.

This story happened in college. Sophomore year, a late fall night, but still so humid it felt like the middle of summer. I was alone in the dorm room. I hadn't seen much of my roommate for a while. We had active social lives. Plus, I didn't care for her boyfriend one bit, and she knew it.

Then she came back to the room. She was rattled. Accustomed to her dark moods, I spoke, but mostly ignored her, probably studied or pretended. It had gotten late and I remember getting ready for bed.

She didn't want me to turn out the light.

She was leaning back on the bed, chain-smoking. Her mile-long legs pulled up, clasping her knees close to her chest with her arms. We had the mattresses on the floor, as was the custom then. I sat on my bed, which was near hers. And asked her why.

"It's not good," she said, her deep voice cracking. Too many long, thin Kools. It was then I noticed. She pushed her long, thick black hair away from her face with a thumb, dark eyes glittering, her face even paler.

She told me she'd spent the day at a farm with the boyfriend who gave me the creeps. "You're not going to believe me," she said, but the stress pushed her thick drawl into a jittery pace I had to strain to understand. "I swear I met a warlock."

I took a deep breath. Okay... here we go. We'd talked about this kind of thing. Laughed about it. We both had messed around with Ouija Boards as kids, scared ourselves at sleepover seances. But she been raised in a fundamentalist household like mine. We ditched those churches the second we got to college. But still, we didn't believe in witchcraft. Did we?

Then she started to talk.

The warlock was real, she insisted. He focused on her like a laser. He lived at the farm with a woman, a witch. He kept talking to her, though. She was special. She had talent, potential. He wanted to see her, to spend time with her. She felt like he was seeing right through her. Like he was hypnotizing her. He was mesmerizing, and she couldn't turn away, from his eyes. He was charming and hypnotic and at the same time horrifying and evil.

She felt as though she was in the room with the devil himself.

Whoa, hold on, time out. She kept talking fast, dropping to a whisper, and I was having trouble keeping up. But I told her that could not be real, the warlock thing. He was making it up, having a laugh on them all, making fun of the girl from the country. He was not for real.

Then she told me something she had not shared in all our late-night dorm talks. Her dabbling had been more than sleepover fodder with girlfriends. She'd gotten in deeper, with other friends from school. She asked did I remember a murder a couple of years back, strange circumstances? Yes, of course I did. Well, she wasn't there, she had nothing to do with it. But that girl got in even deeper than all of them, died in a spell gone bad.

She was crying then. And suddenly I was cold, freezing in fact, and aware for the first time in a very long time that I was so very far from home. I could see the newspaper in my mind and remembered the story, the girl my age, her body found cold and alone in a dark shed. Candles, there were candles surrounding the body. Black candles. Her boyfriend had been arrested. Case closed.

I reminded her of that. Humans, not the supernatural, were involved there. And she had encountered the same situation out at the farm. All she had to do was not go back. Simple. Another case closed. Time for bed.

And then I heard it. A cat. Meowing loudly, yowling. Just outside the window. I could not believe what I was hearing. It just could not be. I got up and ran to the window.

And there it was. In the light of a nearly full moon, a large black cat, glowing green eyes, sitting underneath our dorm window howling at us.

"Get away!" I hissed through the screen. "You get away! Scat!" The cat didn't move. "I MEAN IT GET AWAY!" The window was open. I slammed it shut. The cat hunkered down. It was uncanny. I pulled the drapes. V. was in a panic, again she was crumpled against the wall on her bed, face in her hands.

"It's him, he's here, he's come for me," she whimpered.

"The hell he is," I said. Some words to that effect, I don't remember exactly because I was furious. I didn't really believe the cat was, well, him, the warlock, or whatever. But she believed the warlock had somehow appropriated the cat's visage for the evening. Or become one, or something, I'm a little fuzzy on that one still. But I definitely was spooked by her reaction. I also was sleep-deprived. And I was (am) superstitious enough to not want to take chances.

So I knew exactly what to do.

I had a small cross necklace in a jewelry box. I dug it out. I placed it on the windowsill. "Good trumps evil," I told her, looking grave for the first time that night. "Always. You know that." I knew K. would not be home (they didn't call her "late date K. for nothing). But she never remembered to lock her door. So I ran up the stairs and nosed around. She's Catholic, I knew she wouldn't let me down and she didn't. I found several armaments.

I placed those crosses on the windowsills too. And I dusted off the bible my mother sent me to college with and read from it: "I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety." Psalm 4:8

I didn't believe the cat was a warlock, I told V., but I was cloaking us in the Lord's armor so she could sleep. She wrapped herself in her long back cape and stretched out on her bed. I slept in my clothes, ready to throw out another layer of prophylatic spiritual fencing, if need be. But I remember sleeping hard, unaccosted by cats or warlocks or bad dreams.

My roommate and I did other some strange things as we grew up in the coming years. But we never warred against alleged witches-warlocks-cats or even talked about that night again.

Yet, to this day, I've given cats a wide berth. I don't for a second think they are evil. But now and then a certain black cat will remind me of that night. Often, the cats just hate being ignored and make a beeline for me. And I like to one up them at being, well, cats.

Thinking about that night, I watch them from the corner of my eye until I'm absolutely certain we've not made acquaintance in another time and place, under an almost full moon.

Certain we haven't, my hand moves toward my neck -- is the cross there or in my purse? No church owns me, I don't even go now, but the weapons and armor were burned into me decades ago. If something scary ever decides to show, I'm up for the fight.