The loneliest time of my life was when I was studying abroad in Florence, Italy. I had gone abroad with the vague and romantic notions one has about living in a foreign country where anonymity is supposed to be met with serendipity. Feeling unsettled is as physical as it is metaphysical. It is much easier, of course, to believe that our discontent is caused by tangible problems we can solve—and so every next horizon you move towards is Arcadia until you get there. Every city in your future is one terrace higher until you realize you’re climbing the mount of purgatory. The abstraction of the people you’ll meet and the places you’ll be—the self-satisfying and perhaps desperate idealization of a better future—is dangerous. The ideal that is never realized, that is always out of reach, is a betrayal to self, a recurring, insoluble disappointment.
I lived in a dark, windowless room that had only a sliver of a pathway to move through. In the morning I smothered myself with a pillow to block out the fighting screams of Paola and Leo, which was frightening at first, but for the sake of self-preservation, I came to believe that’s what Italians did—express themselves with passion that could be mistaken for fury. Even as my Italian neared fluency, I existed as a stranger in their house. The Cappios would come home from work—Leo was a train conductor, Paola a kindergarten teacher—turn on the TV, and sit at the dining table for hours, with frozen pizza, canned tuna, hot dogs with mayonnaise, and cellophane-wrapped cornetti, among other drab and depressing fare.
I remember this time distinctly as a counterpoint—a time I never want to return to. My melancholy existence clarified the forms of nourishment my soul requires, as well as the things that were merely false idols—wayward romantic notions of fulfillment. As the latter category grew, so my notions of the ‘the good life’ dissolved. Growing up requires this dissolution. Maturity, it seems, is letting go your false ideals of what constitutes goodness, joy, and meaning; sometimes letting go is not enough; sometimes these ideals are erased by their impossibility; absence and negative space are epiphanies of their own. Living abroad, in the land of Italian men and good food (not in my household) and the most incredible art and olive oil, gave me little joy in the absence of community. Majestic churches and azure waters, smoked mozzarella and supple leather, were little consolation for an empty spiritual life. I was looking for all the wrong things.
I write about this time in my life to help myself understand why I am so in love with my community now. The contrast of darker times brings my current friendships and rhythms into relief. All of this is sentimental, I cannot help it. Sometimes sentimentality is a byproduct of gratitude, the overwhelm of abundance, a gift of grace, not of my own doing. I have little to boast about, for I know how fleeting and how fragile relationships can be. One day a solid communion—only joy and purity and the feeling of eternity—and the next, all gone, people leaving, people changing.
But if I were to tell you how joy has punctuated my life, I would tell you (head buried in the most saccharine nostalgia) of the fires that burned in the wake of communion with the people I love. There is nothing subtle, nuanced, or complex about any of this. These fires have blazed, not in embers but in the wild; not sparks over kindling but in revelatory floods. I cannot temper the simple and child-like joy of sitting around a table with people I love, celebrating our lives together, filling our bodies and our souls; indefensible against our excessive appetites and our over-sized hearts. I have put off writing about what gives me so much life and vigor for fear that I would trivialize joy; that this love letter I daily compose in my head would be so achingly cloying that you would think I have no grief in my life, no capacity for deep sorrows, no recognition of brokenness. My own soaring joy scares me even as it spills over. I swallow it back down lest my joy is robbed from me. See, I can only talk around it; I admit, I am swimming in sentimentality.
On Tuesday evening, there were peaches, honeycomb, truffled cheese, bread, homemade plum and peach jam; sweet harissa carrots on a bed of basil, mushroom risotto dotted with peas, golden cauliflower steaks lined up on a tray, piles of red and green vegetables shimmering in a wooden nest. The west-facing sun beamed its harsh light through the windows, casting our bodies and faces into chiaroscuro. We sat down to eat, knowing that in the hours to come, we would not be searching for anything beyond what we had here; that our desires were not stretched beyond this table, but that we had found meaning in existing together, caring for one another, knowing each other, being in the folds of each other’s lives. I should not speak for everyone, but the feelings that moved me that night were so large that they felt communal, and were so large because they seemed to be experienced by everyone, collectively.
When we gather like this, we forget the abstract desires that grow out of what we think we don’t have, and we meet as we are. Time stops. Candles are lit and blown out; fires glow and then pass into darkness. The peril of joy is its transience, but that is not a good reason for not cherishing it, for remembering it.
In my sleep I am humming paeans to sanctify these ordinary moments of light. Winged joy surprised by its own flight, barreling through inevitable darkness.
Thank you God for this family of mine.