Practicing Reflection

Reflections on the Amalfi Coast

Amalfi, Italy

This morning as I opened my journal to write down a few thoughts to start my day, a folded piece of paper slipped out from between the pages and fell to the floor. I leaned over to pick it up and smiled as I unfolded the sheet of paper to see my handwriting scrawled across the page in all the available free space front and back. I’m constantly writing notes on scraps of paper, and they’re tucked in strange places in my books, day planner and are scattered across my desk. I love those moments when you happen across a note that can transport you back to emotions and thoughts from the past.

I had written all over this piece of paper last February or March while I was in America. I had been quite moved when I read Michelle Fabio’s post My One-Word Theme for 2011: Now, and I was writing down the thoughts that her post had challenged me to think about. What was important for me to work on this year? After falling to my feet this morning by chance, now seems to be the perfect time to share what I had written earlier this year.

I’ve been searching for my word for this year, sometimes actively thinking about it and mulling over different words – sitting with a certain word for a few days to see how it fits or being completely at a loss to find a word other days. But, as so often happens with me, it’s in the moments when my mind is occupied fully elsewhere that some of the most significant thoughts come to me. That’s when I heard a whispering as the word “reflect” settled into  my mind and sat there quietly. The feeling was so calm and natural, and that’s when I realized I had found what I was looking for in my life. There was no more thinking, no more doubting or wondering if I had found my one-word theme for the year. It had arrived.

Reflect.

I could feel immediately that this was what I was missing. I’m really good at being busy. In fact, I don’t think I’m particularly good at not being busy. My idea of relaxing is cooking, sewing, knitting, or doing something creative with my hands. I relax through motion and activities that keep me present. That’s who I am, and I’ve come to accept that I’ll likely never be the sort of person to lay in the sun on the beach or do whatever it is that other people do when they relax. I love that about myself actually.

But I do know the danger is that it’s all too easy to get caught up in the busyness of life. There are always too many things to do and too many distractions that pull me away from the beauty of every day life. I love my daily life so much, and I don’t like the feeling of falling asleep thinking that it is all going by too quickly sometimes. I’m afraid of missing what I love because I’m not paying close enough attention.

The longer I’ve been in Italy, the more I’ve been able to understand that reflection is not simply about slowing down. Yes, I must practice good habits of making time to take leisurely walks and disconnect from work. But what I’ve been searching for this year is something more than just a change in my physical habits. It’s the mental act of being in the now, of being mindful of the present moment. N0t just making dinner, but being fully aware of the sound of the sauce bubbling on the stove, the scents that waft out when I lift the lid to give it a stir, the feel of the lettuce as the cool water runs over it in the sink and the pleasure that comes from creating a meal to enjoy with your loved ones.

I’ve realized that in many ways  these thoughts are moving in the same direction as Michelle’s “now,” which is why her words struck such a deep chord when I read them in January. It’s making the choice to become mentally and physically present, and to reflect on how those moments fill our life. Every one of those present moments create our life and who we are.

While it may be August, I am happy to be able to finally answer the question Michelle posed to her readers back in January. “Reflect” is the word that has stuck with me throughout this year and served as a nearly constant reminder to come back to the present moment. And that is preciscely where I want to be!

Is there word or theme that has changed your way of thinking in 2011?

Finding Home on the Amalfi Coast

Home on the Amalfi CoastIt doesn’t take long to feel at home on the Amalfi Coast. I imagine many travelers experience the same feeling of familiarity and comfort when they first arrive, just as I did in February 2007 when I first visited Amalfi. There’s a warmth, openness and curiosity for foreigners in many of the locals on the Amalfi Coast, which is an undeniable part of that welcoming feeling so many people find here.

Speaking only a few words of Italy, it was certainly very welcome to me when I started spending more time on the Amalfi Coast! With a smile and a few words scribbled down in Italian on a piece of paper, shopping soon became a little less scary as the lady in the shop nicely corrected my pronunciation of “CI-polla” to “ci-POlla” when I needed onions. I didn’t understand anything anyone said to me, but slowly I began to learn a few words.

It was hard, however, not to feel like an outsider when I didn’t know how to do simple things that I’ve never had to put much thought into before, like interpreting the bus schedule or buying herbs at the market. Every expat goes through these feelings, I believe, and I imagine everyone deals with them in different ways as well. I chose to focus on the little victories – the first time I got up the nerve to go into the butcher on my own, the first time I carried out a transaction at the post office in Italian, the first time I felt confident enough to start up a conversation with a stranger, actually being able to figure out that blasted bus schedule. With each success, I felt a little more at home.

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on that very feeling. What is it that makes a person feel at home? It’s a familiarity that comes only with time, but it’s something much more than simply living in a place for a certain period of time. For me, it has more to do with the way a place resonates within you through its sights, sounds and scents. Whether it’s the “invisible scent of lingering lilacs,” as it was for Proust, or simply the comforting view of the street where you grew up playing and laughing as a child, its those very personal experiences and memories that define home.

But, more than anything, I’m starting to realize that home is where you’re happy. Yesterday evening I was out running some errands on the motorino before coming home. As I was riding along a beautiful road in Ravello overlooking the Amalfi coastline, I saw very clearly how, without even realizing it, my life has become interwoven into the panorama of daily life here. That even though I’m still a foreigner, I have started nevertheless to find my place. I smiled as a swerved around a vigilessa (a local policewoman in charge of traffic and city regulations) who had stopped in the middle of the road to take a picture of a nicely dressed couple with the stunning backdrop of the Amalfi Coast behind them. I smiled and beeped the horn as I passed Gaetano, who sells the sweetest peaches I’ve ever tasted. Around the next corner came a tilting Piaggio Ape, one of those tiny three-wheeled Italian vehicles, loaded at least twice its width and three times its  height with bales of hay. I laughed out load hoping that he would make it to wherever he was going with all that hay.

This is it, I thought. It doesn’t have to be complicated or philosophical or romantic or any of the thoughts that have been going around and around in my mind lately. Although I read Michelle Fabio’s words back in February this year, they suddenly clicked. “It really is the simple, stupid,” I thought. As I parked the motorino and walked down the steps to home, I smiled realizing that I had already found my home on the Amalfi Coast without really even knowing it.

Grateful Not Only for the Good Days

Last Thursday I was sitting in the sun in Amalfi and enjoying lunch outdoors overlooking the Marina Grande beach. There were a few brave souls making their way slowly out into the cold water and returning soon enough to lay in the warmth of the sun. Spring is just about to burst open here on the Amalfi Coast, and everything from trees to tourism is coming back to life.

The next morning my cat, Puffy, showed up in the garden in terrible pain. We rushed him to the vet’s office in Maiori to find that he had a urinary block. Tests were done and there has been no significant damage to his kidneys, so thankfully he hadn’t been blocked for very long. We remembered that he seemed quite normal Thursday evening. With a catheter, the IV attachment in his front arm and a cone around his head, the following few days (and nights) were very long. As I sat for hours next to him in the bathroom to keep him calm, I had a lot of time to focus on certain ideas that have been in my mind for months now.

A very sweet patient

One of the words that kept coming back to me was gratefulness. As Puffy purred away while I sat next to him—even when he was in pain—I realized that was his way of telling me how grateful he was for me being there beside him. I thought about how grateful I am, in turn, for all the happiness he has brought us, and how insignificant and easy it is to give him this time and a few nights of sleep. I am grateful that he is recovering now and for this time helping him along that road. It was time that I needed to spend away from my busy schedule.

It’s easy to be grateful for the good days when the sun is shining and life seems easy. But what about the other days when you’re exhausted, frustrated or worried? I realized I don’t want to miss those days. I want to be grateful not only for the good days, but also for the challenging days, the long days, the stressful days. There is something in each of those days to be grateful for – if only the purring of an animal that is grateful for your love and care.

Feeling much better now!

Coming Home Again to Amalfi

Torre dello Ziro from Piazza Duomo Amalfi One of the small pleasures of going away is coming home again. When you love the place where you live, it becomes like an old friend that you haven’t seen in awhile. You notice, perhaps, how they’re wearing their hair in a new way or the new glasses. With a town like Amalfi, it’s the small details that jump out, like new signs, a store that redesigned their interior in a modern style or the arrival of tourists. Walking around Amalfi this morning in the sun felt good, and everywhere I looked my eyes were eagerly searching out the familiar and the new.

Anyone who has made the jump to live in another town or a different country, will know how it feels to see a friendly smile welcoming you back when you’ve been away. Sure, big city anonimity has its advantages at times, but after experiencing the warmth of the Amalfitans, I don’t think I could go back. Over the past four years I’ve been constantly amazed by how friendly the people of Amalfi have been to me, and by how they have welcomed me into their community without treating me differently for being the americana that I am.

It’s good to be missed in the place that has become my home.

One of the first spots I go in Amalfi is the Piazza Duomo in the center of town. When I left in February it was the winter quiet time in Amalfi, and today it was a nice surprise to walk into the Piazza and see the early spring tourists groups gathered on the steps of the Duomo. The shops were open, many of them having been repainted or redecorated over the past month, and there’s the distinct feel of the busy summer ahead in the air. While the tour guide greeted one of his colleagues from Naples who was in town with his group, I couldn’t resist pulling my camera out and taking a few (more) photographs of the Duomo of Amalfi.

It’s beautiful in the spring. Who am I kidding? It’s beautiful all year! I think I feel like I’m back home on the Amalfi Coast when I see the facade of the Duomo of Amalfi again. I could stand and gawk at it for hours. (I wrote my masters thesis on it so I’d have an excuse to do just that for as long as I wanted.) Even though it’s become so familiar to me, I love how certain details stand out when I’ve been away for awhile. Today I noticed the Torre dello Ziro watchtower high in the mountains. You can spot it in the photograph above just between the ornate facade of the church and the roof of the oldest area of the church, today called the Basilica of the Crucifix and home to the Duomo Museum. It reminded me that it’s time to hike to the Torre again soon, especially during this beautiful spring weather!

Duomo of Amalfi Spring

It’s good to be home again, just in time to watch springtime and all its beauty on the Amalfi Coast!

The Eye Remembers Everything

Going back to a familiar place, whether be your hometown or a city where you spent many years, is a strange mixture of emotions. When I landed in the Minneapolis – St. Paul airport recently for a visit back where I went to graduate school, it was comforting to know exactly where to go. Even the smell of the airport brought back so many memories. My feet led me down the right escalators, around the corners and to the Hiawatha Line Light Rail heading toward downtown Minneapolis. I didn’t even have to remind myself to stop and pay attention. The train went past the stop where I used to get off and walk a few blocks to where I lived. But instead of getting off I stayed on one more stop to go to where my good friends live.

That was the moment I became a visitor again.

As I saw the same areas where I used to drive and walk and shop, I kept finding visual reminders of my absence. A building that told me it was time to take a right turn to my friend’s house was completely gone. New coffee shops had appeared, including an excellent Peace Coffee Shop. Yet, some places, like the Birchwood Cafe, had thankfully not changed a bit. “Strange” is perhaps the only word that describes that funny feeling in your stomach when a place that was so familiar suddenly is different.

It was with this softening of past and present memories in my mind that I went to the artist reception for The Vision Changes – The Eye Remembers art exhibit at the University of St. Thomas on the first night I was back in the Twin Cities. There it was right in front of me. A brand new building being constructed on the corner where I used to park my car. The eye remembers everything. I have missed the very dear friends I made during my time in the Twin Cities and as a student in the Art History Department at St. Thomas. There are no words or emails or phone calls that can make up for a hug, spending time together, laughing and talking. I am honored that some of my photos were selected for this exhibition, and even more so once I saw the beautiful work on display by the other artists in this group exhibit. I saw many familiar faces that night and met some lovely new ones. That night will be one of those sweet and happy memories that I’ll return to again and again.

As promised a couple of weeks ago, I have a few photos from the exhibit to share here. I was so busy talking that I only remembered to snap a few right before leaving.

The Vision Changes - The Eye Remembers

The Vision Changes - The Eye Remembers

The Vision Changes - The Eye Remembers

It’s good to go back to where you came from. It’s good to go back to the places you loved. It’s important to hug the people that we hold dear in our hearts. Those people and those places change – it’s inevitable – but the emotional response and memories that are captured in what our eyes remember will always be the same. Thank goodness for that!