Speak Heartfully

thoughts on travel and homecoming

old greeting cards

I’ve lived here for the last 12 years
Since early 1995 all my shit has been in boxes
But if I had a little more time to kill
I’d settle every little stupid thing
Yeah you’d think that I would

-Even if It Kills Me, Motion City Sountrack

There’s a task I felt compelled to accomplish after pulling my dusty boxes out of storage. At first it was this glorified idea of becoming a minimalist. A cleansing, if you will. It’s the kind of thing I should have done before leaving to Japan. Or the kind of thing you do when floating in transition like me. A frenetic cleansing that leads to freedom from the prison of the past. The prison of the stuff that when released, opens to the gates to a great job, divested hang-ups, and a twenty-something’s white and pristine Bauhaus living room—all-90-degree angles, organic food, and Ikea furniture. It’s the triumph at the end of an episode of Hoarders. It’s the idyllic celebration at the end of Extreme Home Makeover. Everything in its place, everything necessary.

The perfect candidates for the attack: a pile of greeting cards I’d saved for 24 years. A stack about two feet high. It shouldn’t take long.

About 10 greeting cards in, I encountered a medallion with the Virgin Mary Guadalupe. And my late Baptist grandmother’s writing.

“This medal you can clip on that watch you clip on your jeans. Have Grandma Adame tell you it’s meaning—I don’t know about Catholic things. Love you and miss you all. Grandma B”

I broke down. The intellectual politics fell away. With only a grandfather alive, reading my grandmothers in dialogue tore at a little something deeper.

I touched every card in that stack. In a few hours, it was childhood remembered, each card reaching a little hand into the heart-well and sending memories rippling out, relived. All the love felt between addresses, despite the addresses (and I had a lot of them growing up), and despite some of the writers no longer being here in this world.

Cards from my grandmothers trace their decline in health, still-loving ink lines become unsteady. Birthday cards trace Dad’s transition from workaholic to expressive and involved father. My most treasured card is one that’s only from him, for my 11th birthday. In somewhat hurried fashion he failed to see the sparkly martini on the front when he bought it. I re-discovered this card 10 years later, on my 21st birthday and about a year after his passing.

The history of these greeting cards is largely a history of women writing to other women. Most of my cards are from Mom, grandmothers, aunts, great-aunts, my sisters, my best gal friend…Often my grandmother would write in my grandpa’s name, Mom would write in Dad, sis would write in little bro. Call it a capitalist triumph for the greeting card industry, but I’m more inclined to call it a coralling into creative expression. The men-family who wrote me cards usually learned it from the women. I’m not complaining (and I’m excluding romantic letters from significant others), just paying tribute to the women of my family supporting this loving custom. Messages like these are part of the heart’s archive. They transcend the barriers of Instagram’s 612×612 pixels and 140 characters of Twitter. And the most precious ones remain safe from my so-called minimalist purging.

I came across a bowl of dried roseblooms
Their fragrance faint, velvet color dulled
I plucked one from the bowl
hearing the dry crack of the petals—
out of caprice and nothing more—
I began to pull away the sheaths
One by one, the abundant layers
Until a sweet decay held inside for so long
Grew stronger,
The petals’ softness grew to feathers
reddened
My efforts yielded a heart
Beating as if still living
Death by any other name might sound sweeter
But a rose’s death
Comes slow and infinite, if at all
I thought of you,
And the one you held dear
One inside a still-velvet sheath
Beside it, a spirit
Two hearts of the selfsame vibrancy
A mystery to all.

small kindnesses and interdependence

My brother looks like a little beanpole. He’s riding his skateboard into an infinite sky. There are no mountains here, just small paved hills that nevertheless provide a challenge for willowy 10 year old legs. I ride by him on my bike. We pass by all the small silent suburban castles, each window reflecting the changing sky, from bright blue to shimmering purple and pink, and finally to resolute navy.

It’s been one month since I left Japan, and I’m transitioning back home. Moments like these reconnect me to life in Texas. A lot of people might share they’ve moved back in with their family with some shame. A year ago you could count me among them. I think there’s something a little American in the struggle for independence no matter the cost. A Japanese friend of mine once said, “My impression of Americans is everyone’s a hero of their own story”.

This struggle is partially the reason why I left for Japan. After leaving college and holding odd jobs for about a year, living paycheck-to-paycheck with my then-partner, I felt lost and needed to be independent. Since middle school I had a dream of living in Japan, so I decided, it was time.

“Our insistence on raw individuality at all times leads to neglect of our communities and loss of sense of belonging” -Tanaka, Ocean

Now here’s a disclaimer, I am not a mystical, magical window into Japan. Live somewhere for a year and you’ll be lucky to call it home. Awaji Island became that. Language barriers, borders, politics, preconceptions lead us through a place with only a voyeur’s understanding. I experienced plenty of that surface gaze in some of my travels. But stay somewhere for a decent length of time, learn the language, have conversations, challenge your assumptions, and the curtain is pulled back.

It’s this pulling back that I sought by living in Japan. I left a year ago with plenty of preconceived notions, perhaps that I can write about later. What I didn’t expect to learn, however, and the most valuable teaching Japan could give me, was a lesson on interdependence.

My first day at work I rode my bike to school. Picture something hipster but rusty, with no gears and razor thin tires. A few wrong turns down some rice paddies later, I got to school late. I went about my day as well as I could, with too many “sumimasen”s (I’m sorry, or excuse me) and finding out the meaning of “atsui” (hot).

At the end of that August day I left school to find my back bike tire completely flattened. I walked my bike toward home, and it started raining. Of course, this being the first time I’ve come home from school, I got lost. GPS wasn’t working. What should have been a 20 minute walk turned into wandering around in the rain for an hour. My work clothes soaked, I imagined the silent passengers in all the little cars looked at me with pity. Eventually I ran into an elderly man working inside a warehouse garage. Inside a little Shiba dog barked. I uttered a “doko” (where) and the name of my apartment. He pointed to where my apartment was and said a lot of Japanese directions I didn’t understand. He handed me an umbrella. He crossed his arms, pointed to the umbrella, and said, “No Back”. I went on my way and found my apartment just down the road.

From that small kindness many carried me through my time on Awaji. That’s not to say that such kindness can’t be found anywhere in the world. It can. It’s just, the magnitude of my reliance on people was so great I couldn’t avoid noticing it any longer. For all the people who interpreted, translated, and taught me Japanese, for the ladies who cooked me hot meals in exchange for English lessons, for the kids who tried their best in class, for the friends who made me laugh and made Awaji my second home, thank you. With these multiple hands pulling me along I became a better teacher, welcomed art-making back into my life, and peeled back some of those notorious layers around the heart.

I went to an island to unlearn how to be an island.

Back at home now it’s a little like being in Rivendell. There’s delicious beer. Elves and hobbits (my siblings) laugh together. Everyone seems to know my language, some know my second language. The fellowship rests. I can get to know my blended family a bit better (now 8 when everyone’s under one roof, which is its own kind of culture shock). For now this interdependence is a welcome respite and a chance to design a new chapter. I am no longer fighting dependence or clawing at independence. Instead, I visit my hometown, not just to eat the most delicious Mexican food this side of the border, but also to visit my grandfather and fully comprehend my grandmother’s passing. Catching up with old friends and new, and listening to some of the awesome things they’ve been up to since I’ve been away is also a joy.

If I could give anyone advice on coming back home it would be to greet all changes with open arms. Meet your loved ones where they are at instead of how you remember them. It’s gonna be uncomfortable sometimes. Maybe friends have moved on, family members have formed new or different relationships. Your journey is your own and theirs is theirs.

I seek threads back to fond memories of the past year. My brother and I watch Doraemon, my sis and I watch Attack on Titan. I read the Japanese characters on the miso soup label, and heave a sigh of relief walking into the Asian supa. Little trinkets and photos unpacked from my suitcase remind me of memories still fresh. The love’s still felt, and these little threads cherished. I rely on my family and my friends near and far to carry me through this transition.

It’s dark, so my brother takes his skateboard and returns inside. I stay out and continue my ride. People are walking their dogs and streetlights shine orange. The sky is dark enough, and I remember what the silhouette of the mountains looked like at night, black, dormant, sleepy, against a gray hazy sky.

tre (Italia, Spagna, Francia)

Barcelona opened my world and my heart.

They speak Catalán, a regional language that’s a mixture of French and Spanish influences. It’s a truly bilingual city, with Spanish the secondary language. Proud may be a way to describe Barcelona. I can’t help but admire how actively the city defends its identity, while still embracing the world and its possibilities.

Gaudí astonished me. We entered the cathedral of Sagrada Familia, and came upon the forest. From then on Barcelona ceased to be a city and emerged into a fantastic world…one where trees reach to God, where the rock rises out of its slumber, and somehow it’s possible to know what the tiniest cell might feel like. He’s one of my favorites…an architect of dreams and myth.

Barcelona made me consider living in Europe for the first time…but what would it be like to live here? I have no qualms about learning Spanish, about becoming a part of the city…but all this splendor, who paid for it? All this beauty exists so far, and yet so close to the struggles of Mexico. Spain and Mexico…Mexico and Spain…it’s s strange to come to a colonizing nation to realize that the places you visited a world away echo with the visions of history, of Catholic conquistadors.

I am not a historian…and so we left Gaudi’s forest, the beach, the metropolitan city, with heavy hearts. We traveled on to the true Atlantis, Venice.

Is this really the very same Italy we’ve come to know?

We traded trains and subway cars for boats. Everyone walks or bikes or takes the vaporetto (or water taxi). Tourists teem around St. Mark’s. City leaders meet to carve out the city’s future, in response to whispers about Atlantis sinking.

We got lost in Venice…several times…through wind and rain.

We traveled to the island of Murano, desolate and cold, to mine for some beautiful glass to take home to our families. And throughout our stay, nations of the world vied for our attention with politically charged artistic displays.

With wave motion still lingering in our bodies, we took flight to Paris. A new country, new language, and new faces of old friends.

An extra large brunch Sunday morning was the best welcome we could have had.

Croque monseuir, riz au lait, salade, croissant, caffe americain….like good italians we learn all the food words first!

Au revoir, bonsoir, si vous plait, frommage…

Thankfully our journeys through the city extend farther than my French. We heard the bells ring in Notre Dame.

Inside I imagined I walked into Victor Hugo’s world. I didn’t spot Quasimodo. But I am thankful for the beauty of cathedrals unlike any we had seen in Italy.

We visited the the Louvre, paid our respects to Mona.

We saw art that’s a little more controversial…

And took a day trip to Versailles and the largest gardens in the world.

King Louis has a great place, a truly beautiful one, designed to display the glory and wealth of France. It’s a practice in vast and precise beauty though each groomed hedge and arranged color, statue and watered avenue. Its an almost terrifying wealth that built this place.

By seeing Versailles I have a renewed appreciation for fresh air and space, for fall colors and natural beauty. But Versailles…is maintained.   Isn’t it strange that something harnessed by people, with an agenda behind it, can make you desire something completely different?

I don’t really know what I’m getting at…maybe some sort of ethics of beauty, or just the scattered thoughts of a woman lost in so many sights, sounds, and complexity…

One of my favorite parts of Paris was walking through the streets and buying my daily baguette. Even still, the pace of the city and our travels make me so thankful to be back in Tuscany, the land of pasta and slow meals, afternoon walks and greeting someone with “Ciao”. After two and a half months of being a stranger in strange lands, I am so happy to have this small sense of home in Italia, just from leaving and coming back again.

sud in pezzi

A long overdue post for a long week and a half of travel, travel recovery, getting sick and getting well. We spent three days in Rome, then took a train south to the Amalfi coast. Everything is still a blur, the beauty, the size, the AGE, the colors, the feel of the wind from the sea, and at least I can remember the waters of Capri…midnight blue even in the daytime. I want time to slow down so that I could possibly remember every smell and every taste, including eating gnocci by the seaside. Gnocchi is a type of potato dumpling usually served with pesto sauce. Have you ever tried potato that tastes like air?


St Peter’s Cathedral

St Peter’s Square

Spaghetti alla carbonara, in Roma
The flutes of the Pantheon, built by ancient Romans
As good as ancient Roman architecture, a frozen coffee with whipped cream from Tazza d’Oro
Baroque goodness

The Coliseum!
Where gladiators fought

The beach

The island of Capri
Amici (friends) ready for some sun
Amanda through a beer bottle
Saying hi to Dad in the Naples train station :)
More to come soon…

guerrieri dell’uva

Once upon a time, a group of steadfast warriors set out on a fearless mission to conquer the whole of Tuscany. They began with the town of sky-scraping citadels–A medieval city known as San Gimignano.

They climbed to the highest room in the tallest tower, where they found the bells of friars long since entombed in dust.

From their new vantage point they saw the remains of towers standing since medieval times. They targeted each, preparing their mode of attack.

Armed with brushes and pencils, the warriors set to work capturing the town and its complex structure–all brown bricks and masonry, all the blocky heights and thickset windows, all the prestige and defensive planning.

And…on their lunch break they ate the best gelato in Italy so far.

No, seriously, I probably seem to say this about every corner of every town, but this place won an international gelato competition. The best gelato…in the world! http://www.gelateriadipiazza.com/

San Gimignano so far has been my favorite city. Perhaps its the earth tones, or the clustered buildings, or passing under the walled gate and immediately feeling transported to the Middle Ages. Though only 13 of the towers in San Gimignano survive from the over 80 original ones, the town has a potent sense of history. It’s the feeling that resembles what I felt seeing the Duomo, except this time I could actually walk around within it, soak it it, climb among it, and get lost between stony walls as thick as my body.

Our next quest presented itself a few days later. On our day off, a group of us volunteered to help with the wine harvest. A van picked us up at 730 in the morning and drove us to the vineyard.

“We’re picking merlot today” Michele said, handing us pruning shears and blue exam gloves.

 

 

Welcome to Tuscany!

Isaura from A&M

My partner Isaura and I began weaving through the rows, snipping off bunches of small grapes bulging from the bottom of the vine. We filled 6 red bins full of grapes before lunch, and then we exhaustedly and gratefully gobbled down the spaghetti and beer that was our partial payment for our labor.

We worked for three more hours after lunch, and then we received the last of our payment–plates filled with bruschetta and bread soaked in wine and sugar. We witnessed the process of turning the grapes into the juice that will eventually transform into wine fresh from Italia. They gave us a bottle of wine each, which I’m bringing home to you, dear family and friends :)

grape stems

Cheers!

My “Italian” famiglia :)

Wish us well, we’re off to Rome in the morning! Then on Friday, we venture to Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast, and Kapri :)

 

Buona Esperienza


San Miniato

Is this real life? Is that really the Duomo? Is Michelangelo Buonarotti’s cadaver really behind that marble slab?

Firenze (or Florence) produced my first larger-than-life experience. Pictures  “say a thousand words”, but there’s no comparison to walking alongside the history embodied in these green-marbled walls encrusted with gold stars and white spiral columns. Perhaps to give you a scale to measure by, imagine all the pages in the world that may in some way reference Florence and Bruneschelli’s egg-shaped dome. Imagine those pages stacked on top of each other, all of the textbooks, all  the 200 year old books and all the new ones, all the film manuscripts that call for a sweeping panoramic shot of the city’s red-tiled roof-scape. All of that writing, all of that retelling, came from being HERE, where I am, where I was at that moment in time that now echoes in my memory—more things that make me appreciate how incalculable creativity is.

The Duomo

I catch myself wanting to soak everything in, but it’s damn near impossible. At least, we capture the smallest mote of these places through photos…through our blogs…our watercolors and our stories where we continue the threads of inspiration ever so slowly forward. I can’t help but want everyone I know to come here and get what this place can give them.

Firenze watercolor

Over the weekend friends and I took off to Cinqueterre to grab the last bits of summer. Cinqueterre translates roughly to “five lands”, representing five towns perched on Italy’s rocky northwestern coast. With nothing but a loose plan we arrived in Monterosso to pizza and cold beer and blue, blue water. The rocks you see here resemble the sand, a grayish color complemented by the bright yellows, reds, and teals of the villas.

On the hike

We took a two-hour hike to Vernazza, the next town over. Sheer rock stretched up on our left, and the curve of the sea stretched out to our right. There were few railings. That didn’t stop a seventy year old lady and some Germans and their dogs from conquering the trail.

Vernazza

I feel the need to update my situation: we’re actually NOT washing our clothes by hand. We found a self-service station that’s a ten minute walk down the hill. My clothes smell so fresh.

Fun fact: The Etruscans were the ancient inhabitants of Italy and had a significant influence on Roman and Greek culture. Tuscany, the region I’m staying in now, is named after them. It’s worth noting that in Etruscan culture, the woman was esteemed as much as the man. Husbands and wives were buried together and their likenesses carved on the top of their sarcophagi. Etruscans rock!

San Miniato
Hey Dad :)

Bienvenuti a Italia!

One thing I could say for our first few days here: Italia is old country. The convent we are staying in dates back to the 1500s. There’s no AC, so we get to experience all of the breezes and the usefulness of sweating. We will be handwashing our clothes and the wifi is scarce. Everyone drives a Fiat, little Italian cars that are mini hatchbacks…no one has spotted an SUV yet!

After a two-hour bus ride in a dusty charter, we arrived to Castiglion Fiorentino tired but pressing each other to stay awake 7 hours ahead of our normal bedtime. Here we met the city for the first time.

Moving through the city along the latitudes, we use the same streets that the cars do. When a car approaches from behind we press to the walls to let it pass. On the longitudes though, we “repent”. The pedestrian streets make for a steep climb up the hill of the town. We complain on occasion but…the view is worth it, and we’ve adopted the café at the top of the hill as our favorite. We get our cappuchine and vine and pasta (pastries) from up there, looking across a small plaza and the hills of Tuscany.

Every window has a flowerbox.

The first few days of being in this lovely city truly played out like a dream. That feeling lingers…the feeling that I’ll be going home just around the corner. Visiting the community pool, where they played Lady Gaga in the background while we sipped Coronas by the pool, didn’t help. American culture is present here…and it’s a little strange, almost uncomfortable in a way. What does a foreigner do when confronted with her own exports? It was only by chance that I may have listened to Pavarotti…

Even still, around every corner we are greeted with, “Ciao” and encounter something precious. Turn out a window in this town, the wind greets you, as does the fog on a hilly horizon dotted with rows upon rows of olive trees.

In Arezzo, a town about 20 minutes away, we found an antique fair and antique tradition. The townspeople wore banners to show their loyalty to their very own jousting team.

 

This is just one reflection of the regional pride each of the towns here have. Smilja, our instructor, reminded us that Italy as a country…well, it’s also very young, formed from the union of many city states. Would you say you’re a Texan before an American? I used to, and as I venture outward I find that identity beginning to transform.

Buglers played "Ode to Joy" in the piazza

I don’t think we could have asked for a better place to stay.

It is small, safe, and beautiful. We can travel within the country and without. We have home base equipped with three-course home-cooked meals (including pasta cooked fresh every day, in every way possible, with and without pesto, tomato, spices…).

Am I really going to be here for three months?

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