This post was originally shared on Mindsoak Me as answer to the question - When do you feel most alive?
When do I feel most alive?
The first thing that popped into my mind when Jon asked this question was ~when I am in Italy. There’s a raw energy that captivates my spirit the moment my feet touch the dry, cracked earth in Valanidi – the town in which my father was born.
Every swallow of rich, syrupy espresso, every long breath of fresh mountain air – tinged with the aroma of baking bread and peeled garlic, every dip into the clear blue Ionian Sea.
The breathlessness of crowded streets, the heady stench of overripe fruit, the contradictions that lurk behind broken portico walls then reveal themselves unapologetically, breaking every rule of logic and reason.
The crooked smiles and musical dialects that change with every quarter mile of country road.
The old women in head-to-toe black who pinch my cheeks and the young women in tight jeans and tube tops who shoot me the evil eye.
All of it is holy to me. Every aspect of the culture, its people and places, transforms me from living to alive in the space of one breath.
I’ve often thought that perhaps there’s something about being in the birthplace of my extended family, my tribe, that stirs and amplifies me. Maybe there are geographic coordinates in my genetic code, somewhere. The first time I stepped foot into Calabria, I felt that this was where I could be my best self. The first time I looked into the eyes of the strangers who were my cousins, I sensed that I was at home. My skin fit like never before. I felt free, unleashed, unhindered by expectations of culture and society. Energy seemed to infuse into my core from the very ground. Because it was the ground of my ancestors?
I didn’t understand it, but I felt a palpable connection to this place. The sensation first undid me, then laced me up again - the way I was meant to be. And for the first time in my life, I didn’t need to understand why. Usually, I pick everything apart, especially the why’s behind every situation. There, I didn’t. The feeling of wholeness was enough.
In my home environment in Pittsburgh, where I raise daughters and manage a household with pets and laundry and schedules, where I write using a process, I am a creature of habit. I wake up early. I must have coffee before speaking to anyone. I exercise. I stick to the plan, and I don’t sit down for a rest. I tire in the evening and go to bed early. It’s the daily grind, and I’m no different from most American moms.
I have learned through multiple trips to visit my family in Italy that I am a different creature there. I somehow shed the skin of the American impostor who inhabits my body in the meantime, and I fully submit to the donna inside.
She smiles immediately, even if she wakes up drenched in August sweat at four o’clock in the morning, because she can no longer sleep in the sticky stillness. She needs conversation more than sleep and perhaps even more than coffee. She doesn’t require much but does thrill at the idea of a daily gelato and a nap on the pebbles of her favorite beach. She has no plan and doesn’t bristle when she realizes nobody around her has one either.
She breathes deeply and often.
She stays up all night with her cousins. To talk about nothing and everything. To sit quietly together. To be what they cannot be in the mundane of their daily lives.
She is fully alive.
I have tried and tried to bring this donna back to Pittsburgh with me. After my first tearful goodbye to my cousins in Europe, I returned to Kent State University as a senior with a one-cup Bialetti and a penchant for homemade red wine. I wanted to take Italy back home with me. These pieces I could shove in my suitcase, but the memories and the transformation in my heart stayed alive as well. I insisted on experiencing life as vividly as people do in Italy, that I would live filter free and straight-up, not just rolling with the tide of ups and downs but celebrating all of it.
It was easier when I was single and in college. Harder now with a family of five, being a part of the super-sized, super-scheduled American society in which we live. We try to balance. I try to summon the donna every day. In my kitchen, she is always with me, insisting on flavors of fresh basil and earthy Extra virgin olive oil in my dishes. I squeeze time from no time for dinners with my aunts, uncles and cousins here, ensuring that the value I place on family ties is evident in the way I live my life.
One of my favorite lines in my book, Beautiful Secret is – “For Italians, blood is more important than breathing.” Family first is a way of life for us. And, close friends become family, so they are woven into our fold of loudness, boldness, honesty, and loyalty.
I’ve taken my kids to Calabria so that they can understand our family values more deeply, so that they perhaps will feel the pull at a young age and never have to ask why we do things differently or wonder exactly where they fit or who they are. As young children, they experienced the energy too. They express it every time their eyes shine with longing to go back to Calabria. Every time, they describe their first gelato, I can taste the heady awe of their first time in Italy.
So, to answer the question – when do I feel most alive?
I’m most alive when I am sitting on my favorite Italian beach, Saline, where the pebbles dig gently into my skin, leaving a trail of pink marks and the rocks rise up from the sea just daring me to use them as a springboard into freedom. I saunter easily into the clear blue water, my cousins at my sides, playful as first friends. I never feel the chill of the water or the sun’s late summer singe or the scary sting of what may happen tomorrow. I’m alive in the moment.
I’m most alive in all of the moments I spend at that beach and on that mountain and in the company of strangers who became family after just two kisses.
And even though this intensity can’t translate to every moment of my life, it’s okay. The memory residue of these exponentially concentrated moments splices into my day-to-day. In fragments, in shadows, in full-blown gut-punches of nostalgia.
They shake me to life again. The donna whispers an Italian love song and laughs as the words take shape on my lips.
And I remember, for the moment, who I am.