From Arkansas to Italy

Wading through Lethe is an unexpected mix of rural Arkansas and then, suddenly, ancient Rome. Why?

I grew up dreaming of other places. My first poem at age six was about taking a trip in a boat and admiring the night sky. The poem speaks to a wanderlust that for years I had to satisfy with a set of 1963 World Book Encyclopedias. My two favorite sections—the only ones in color—were found in the “F” and “P” volumes: the flags of the world and paintings.

As I was growing up, my aunt and uncle hosted exchange students from around the world. I pummeled them with questions, wanting to know everything about their lives back home. At fifteen, I decided that the best way to see something of the world was by being an exchange student myself. The only problem was I had no money for the fee. If my adventure was going to become a reality, I had to raise the funds. I started cleaning houses and teaching piano lessons in addition to my Saturday stint at the local post office and babysitting gigs. Family friends and organizations offered items for me to raffle—art prints, an Aromatique gift basket. My friends helped me with a car wash, my family hosted garage sales, and my mom baked thousands of cookies to sell at various community events. The local church also helped. And then, just before I needed to make the final payment, an anonymous donor made a $2,000 deposit into my bank account.

The Bridge of Sighs – Venice

And suddenly I was in Italy, knowing only enough Italian to ask where the bathroom was. My host family lived an hour south of Rome, in quaint Ferentino. My host mom was a retired Italian teacher and taught me how to speak, even though we had no common language between us. My host father’s garden and fruit trees supplied most of our food. My host siblings went out of their way to make me feel welcome, even though it was months before I could contribute to a conversation.

Why Italy? I wanted to attend an art school, and in Italy the high schools allow students to specialize. My classmates were quick to take me under their wing and show me the local historic places and the best pizzerias. My professors were kind and patient. They helped with the language, but above all they helped me understand Italian culture. Once a week I was excused from class so I could visit Rome and let the city be my teacher.

Florence, Italy

It was the year 2000. I didn’t have a cell phone. Dial-up internet was slow and spotty and cost per minute. I wrote emails home offline and then got online long enough to send them. I spoke to my parents with a prepaid phone card once or twice a month. I sent postcards home.

In the poem “Leaving Rome,” I had just been to Piazza Spagna to see the Spanish Steps and the museum commemorating the English poet John Keats. He’d left his love Fanny Brawne for Italy in hopes of finding a climate more hospitable to cure his tuberculosis. He never saw her again.

“Leaving Rome”

Along the Spanish Steps, streetlights popped on
like syncopated fireflies. Walking up Via del Corso,
I passed shop mannequins with averted eyes,
pulled my coat tighter, thinking of Keats,
dead at twenty-five. A cyclone of cars spun
at the foot of Vittorio Emanuele’s grimy shrine.
The Colosseum’s pocked crown rose above
the Forum’s broken bones. I mailed a postcard,
the scene depopulated and clean, knowing
it would arrive months before I returned home,
knowing it looked nothing like what I’d seen.

The poem explains the desire to share an experience with someone and the difficulty in truly conveying it to someone who wasn’t there. Postcards are beautiful, but the real place is always more complicated than the beautiful, glossy photograph shows.

Most of the other poems about traveling in Wading Through Lethe follow my summers abroad as a college student and later as I worked for International Programs at the University of Central Arkansas, coordinating trips for the university as well as co-leading trips with my husband.

The year in Italy changed the course of my life. I’m forever grateful to the many people who helped make it possible, as well as the many who made my year in Italy unforgettable.

“Leaving Rome” first appeared in October Hill Magazine

Italy: Family, Food, Festivity – Part II

Friends and family have been asking: “What was the best part of your trip?” As expected, the sites were mind-expanding and the food tantalizing. But the next time I visit Italy, not much will have changed along those lines. So my answer is: “The people.” We spent three months with sweet and enthusiastic students, faculty, and staff and made side visits to see Italian friends and family.

 

My Italian professor from high school, with whom I’ve been in contact for nearly twenty years, came up to the villa to speak on Machiavelli’s The Prince. His son, Paolo, a documentary filmmaker, Skyped in to discuss his film Terra di Transito (Land of Transit) about the immigration crisis in Italy. When we went to Rome, we met them for an incredible authentic Roman meal at Giggetto in the Jewish district near the Porticus Octaviae. The next day I had lunch with my high school friend and her husband, and we took a long afternoon walk along the Roman aqueducts in the Archaeological Park a few blocks from their home.

 

 

Our semester wound down with a trip to the Casentino Valley. Of all the rainy days to have, this was the best: beside a roaring fire in the common room of the Castello di Porciano, a restored Medieval castle Dante once stayed in that is now a hotel and museum. The students were studying for their final exams; I was preparing for my last class on Petrarch; and Chuck was keeping Ariel entertained.

 

After leaving the castle we headed to Poppi, where we toured one of the most intact and intricate castles I’ve ever visited, complete with a library containing 14th century copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy (no pictures allowed). From there, our bus wound through the mountains to La Verna, where St. Francis is said to have received the stigmata (and where we saw his 800-year-old blood-stained robes). More things added and checked off my bucket list.

 

At the end of our semester abroad, we made our way south to the town of Ferentino to see my host parents. This kind and generous couple hosted me for an academic year when I was in high school. I hadn’t seen them in 11 years. My host sister flew in from London and rode down from Rome with my other host sister and her two eight-year-old twin girls. We had a weekend of fun and then my host brother and his wife joined us for Sunday lunch.

 

Ariel was delighted to meet the twins, who, like her, had Micky Mouse pajamas. We enjoyed fresh veggies from my host father’s garden as well as my host mother’s homemade pasta and famous ricotta pie. (My mouth is watering just remembering it.) Sadly, their fruit and olive trees were scorched by a hard freeze–it seems Tuscany wasn’t the only part of Italy that endured a bitter winter.

 

While in Ferentino, I also reconnected with my professors and had dinner in the historic town of Alatri, inhabited for nearly 4,000 years. The huge stones of the acropolis, placed without mortar, were legendarily believed to have been stacked by Cyclopes. We enjoyed a rich meal from 9 to midnight while Ariel slept peacefully in the pram.

 

Saying goodbye to such great people was the hardest part of this trip. I am more aware than ever of the incomparable joy and fulfillment of having a good meal with good people. We have tried to maintain this spirit since being home, not wanting to take anyone or anything for granted.

It’s been a whirlwind summer, though–Chuck worked on the cabin until June, and then we began the slow process of packing up our home and looking for an apartment to rent until we can finish the cabin. I have been hired at Harding University as a Professor of English, so we definitely didn’t want to continue commuting 100 miles a day. We’ll miss our friends and family in Conway, but living close to work means more time with Ariel and less stress.

The Italians have an expression, “piano piano,” or “little by little.” We may not be in the cabin yet, but we’re going from 2500 square feet to a two-bedroom apartment. We’re storing some heirlooms and other keepsakes we’ll have to go through at some point. But the more we let go, the greater the value of what we decided to keep, and the more headspace we have for old memories and the new ones to come.

Trimming the Tree. . . and Our Book Collection

Last year, after a rodent family bunked up inside the Christmas tree storage bin, our tree rained turds when I opened up the branches. The artificial tree, at nearly 25 years old, had lived a good life, even though the stand had been broken for years and we had to stabilize the tree using a trash can full of rocks.

We had thought we’d be living in the cabin this Christmas, so we didn’t worry about catching any post-Christmas sales on trees. A strand of solar powered lights sounded like a fun and surprisingly affordable way to “spruce” up a thorny Bradford pear in the absence of a good old fir tree.

But as we are still in our old, drafty, much-loved house, and since we needed to purge some books, we decided on a book tree. I didn’t construct it alone–a good friend with experience and a knack for balancing books is why it’s still standing on our unlevel floor.
It was harder but more fun than anticipated, and other than the nice leather-bound books and the Jane Austen tree topper, it’s made up of books we are getting rid of. Some of the books are duplicates, some we had read but did not intend to again, and others are only a library or a click away should we regret our parting. It’s only about 300 or so of the roughly 1800, but it was a serious start.
Last year I culled our Christmas decor, and this year less is more. We kicked off our holiday movie list with Charlie Brown, a reminder that it’s not outward appearances or commercialism that make meaning. We felt it was a fitting first movie for our little Ariel.