Ordinary Godliness

Sunset 4

“. . . I believe that [Christ’s] ‘through me’[1] meant through the place where he was, spiritually.  Along the path he had taken, interiorly.  Not through him as an individual. . . . ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,’ he said, and that comment can be applied to every soul on earth. . . .”
-Spoken by a character in Roland Merullo’s The Delight of Being Ordinary (New York: Doubleday, 2017), p. 334.

In The Delight of Being Ordinary, author Roland Merullo imagines that Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, and Paolo de Padova (the book’s fictional narrator, supposedly the Pope’s cousin and first assistant) sneak out of the Vatican and join Paolo’s estranged wife, Rosa, for a road trip through Italy.  They travel in disguise—and in a Maserati.  Recent dreams have prompted the Pope and Dalai Lama to undertake their adventure.  The places and people they encounter[2] on their rollicking excursion not only inspire reflection by the holy men but also help Paolo and Rosa to examine their own beliefs and their rocky relationship.  Both lighthearted and thought provoking, The Delight of Being Ordinary has helped me to clarify some of my thoughts about the gifts and dangers of religion.

In their pure forms—before they are tainted by our striving for power and supremacy—the world’s faiths are different approaches to the same goal: to become better human beings.  But what does it mean to be a good human being?  I would answer: it means to be kind, to understand our unity with all others; it means knowing we are called on to love, serve, respect, honor, and uplift every person and God’s magnificent Earth.  I am a Quaker in part because I share the Quaker belief that “there is that of God in everyone,” no matter how buried by the challenges and mistakes of living.

So far we humans have generally trampled the best possibilities of religion.  Such is the case when we imagine that our religious affiliation offers individual salvation unavailable to those outside our chosen circle of sanctity.  By practicing our particular religion, we may think we are demonstrating to God that we know all the special passwords and have mastered the secret handshakes that will let us soar into heaven, past the multitudes of uninitiated, unchosen, inferior folks—i.e., those not like us.  But does God only want people just like us, only accept those who recite the right prayers, pray on the correct days, fast by the rules, finger the proper beads?  Rituals are valuable if they help us not just to feel nearer to God but also to feel closer to all the souls across the planet and throughout time.  On the other hand, if we think that our traditions and precepts serve to show our superiority to every outsider, they are among the causes of misunderstanding, bigotry, hatred, poverty, violence, and war.

We are each part of God and loved by God, regardless of our religious affiliation.  Christ does not say, “You are a Methodist, and I only take Presbyterians.”  God does not say, “You are a Muslim, and I only favor Christians.”

During our lives, none of us can know the entire truth of who and what God is and how creation came to be.  (Okay, so there was a big bang, but what was the source of the mass that exploded to create the stars and planets?)  The words and histories of our greatest religious figures have been interpreted and reinterpreted over the centuries, filtered through our imperfect human understanding, the vagaries of language, and the siren song of power and control.  Over the course of our lives, we have the opportunity and responsibility to use our own seeking to accept or refute, expand, mold, and clarify the religious teachings we have encountered.

Because there is that of God in each of us, we have the capacity to listen to and learn from the best within ourselves.  And a range of personal experience can be a masterful teacher.  I am absolutely convinced, for example, that consciousness is not confined within individual brains but links us all.  And the strongest reason I am convinced of this fact is that I have had direct evidence of its truth—including a visual image I saw in my mind during meditation at the time of the September 11 attacks (before I knew about them) and a couple of personal experiments with remote viewing.  In addition, feelings of connecting with my parents on the other side have helped to shape my sense of what “heaven” may be like.

The wisest of our religious leaders preach universal kindness and love.  But all those leaders who preach division and who seek to control through fear and feigned superiority are false prophets.  We see religions providing the would-be powerful—leaders and followers—with an excuse to harm those of different faiths and cultures.  Also pernicious are those who claim that by following their spiritual program, congregants will see their problems evaporate—especially if they tithe sufficiently.

The sermon delivered by the minister who presided at my maternal grandmother’s funeral included a commonplace—and flawed—message.  He spoke of his conversations with my grandmother, Martha, about her spiritual health and salvation.  But I think the minister lacked understanding of the meaning her life had had for all of us who knew her: It was not my grandmother’s late spiritual “rebirth” according to evangelical doctrine that assured the peace and wellbeing of her soul.  It was her well-lived life, filled with love, kindness, humor, determination, and generosity, as well as with plenty of mistakes from which she could learn.  The minister said to us, “If you want to see Martha again, you will accept Christ as your savior.”  No,  I believe that what God asks of us is to live the kind of life for which Christ set an example:

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another. . . .”[3] (Ephesians 4:32)
“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)

What kind of a God would rank and judge religious affiliation?  Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Christian, shaman . . . atheist: all of us are loved by God, and all of us are Godly if we are loving and kind to one another.  I have a long way to go to become the kind of person I want to be.  But I don’t think that my church membership makes one bit of difference to God, unless it helps me to become more loving and kind and to see that we—all people—are one.

[1] John 14:6 (English Standard Version) – “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

[2] Some of the characters that appear in the climax of The Delight of Being Ordinary appear as main characters in Roland Merullo’s Breakfast with Buddha (2008), Lunch with Buddha (2012), and Dinner with Buddha (2015), which I also recommend.

[3] The quotations from Ephesians and 1 Corinthians are from the English Standard Version.

The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 6

At an Italian bar
Outdoors at an Italian bar

Pisans Seen and Unseen

Have you seen that book about my tower?” said a big voice next to Polly. No one else was around, and besides, she’d already spent enough time with Sofia to have recognized her voice anywhere from New York to Beijing.

“I looked at it yesterday. It’s beautiful.” Thinking about how Sofia wished she had chiseled some of those beautiful designs, Polly felt a little sorry for her

“Did you see the carved animals?” Sofia sounded wistful. “There’s even a dragon. I like the ram best. Our family had a ram, and my father made that relief sculpture a portrait of our Rammy.”

“Your father carved the ram?” asked Polly, amazed to have discovered that someone she actually knew had such an important achievement in her family history.

“Woof,” added Kinzica, as if to announce that she, too, was here this afternoon and feeling proud of her family’s patriarch.

“Be quiet, Kinzica! They don’t like dogs in here—invisible or not!” Returning to her usual authoritative tone, Sofia added, “It’s time we were heading down to the bar—the Bar Allegro, right next to your school.”

Polly still found it odd to be heading to a “bar.” She found it odder still to be walking with a girl and dog she couldn’t see. Polly asked hesitantly for fear of being rude, “Who are those children playing accordions? They don’t seem to be having a very good time.”

“They’re Roma—Gypsy children. They come here sometimes—especially when it’s damp, like today. Most of the summer they’re at the seaside. Flora’s here a lot of the time, though. She’s who I want you to meet next. I thought we might see her along here. Maybe she’s playing farther up the street today. Anyway, she knows to meet us at the bar.”

After they’d crossed the piazza at the end of the Corso Italia, Sofia directed, “Go into the bar and ask for mineral water or juice, or whatever you like. Then go to one of the tables outside under the arcade. Try to pick one away from other people so we can talk before Flora shows up.”

“You’d make a good drill sergeant,” said Polly.

“What’s that?” asked Sofia.

“Never mind.”

After Polly had paid for a bottle of grapefruit juice and a slice of focaccia, she sat down in a wicker chair at an empty table. At the end of the boulevard she could see the train station, but the African merchants were not in their usual places under the arcade shared by the bar. Polly pulled her sweater around her to block out the surprisingly cool, damp air.

“What’s it like going to school?” Sofia startled Polly by asking—in what, as usual, seemed like an unnecessarily loud voice. “Of all the zillion things I’ve done and places I’ve been, that’s an experience I can’t duplicate. Girls in my day didn’t go. I do visit lots of classes, that’s for sure—my favorite is architecture—but I can’t grasp the whole experience. No one ever calls on me—well, hardly ever. Mirella did once. She kind of forgets that not everyone knows I’m about—just the cool people. Mirella’s cool—different but cool. But some completely uncool girl in her class said, ‘Sofia? There’s no Sofia in here! Don’t you know our names by this time?’

“Homework is another thing I miss doing,” Sofia added. It sounds so interesting. But I can’t very well lug around a backpack, can I?”

“Homework is something I’d be glad to give up,” said Polly, “except once in a while in a subject I really, really like.”

“You’d miss it,” Sofia said with certainty.

Polly was eager to bring up another subject while she had the chance. “My Italian teacher said we’re going to be studying some famous Pisans in history—a girl named Kinzica, just like your dog’s name, a San Ranieri, and someone called Santa Bona. Do you know anything about these people?”

“I didn’t personally know Kinzica when she first became famous. Her heyday was before my birth as Sofia. She was a really big heroine, and still is in many people’s minds. Do you want to know the story, or have you already heard it all?”

“No, Elena just mentioned her.”

“About a thousand years ago, the Pisans and Saracens were both big powers and vied with each other in conquering land all over the place. Well, in 1005, the Pisan fleet was off trying to regain some lost territory when the Saracens landed right here on our coast. One night they sneaked into town in a section that wasn’t very well defended because, after all, lots of the men were away. Young Kinzica—her whole name was Kinzica de’ Sismondi—saw the Saracens and began ringing the bells in one of the towers so loudly that folks woke up, armed themselves, and drove off the invaders!”

“For someone who says she’s not into time, you surely know history. How do you know she was real—that someone named Kinzica really saved the city from a Saracen invasion? My teacher thinks there’s some question about whether such a girl ever existed.”

Sofia’s voice conveyed the height of indignation: “Do you think I’m real?” she asked in a tight tone.

“Of course I think you’re real! I’m having a conversation with you!”

“Well then you’ll have to believe Kinzica is real because I was having a conversation with her yesterday, and I’m not any more inclined to imagine I’m talking to someone when I’m not than you are. Even though I wasn’t around here when Kinzica spread the alarm, Mirella was. This was before she was Beatrice, of course. Whoops—I was supposed to let Mirella tell you that, but you probably aren’t up on Beatrice, anyway, so she can explain.”

Sofia continued as Polly struggled to keep up with her explanations: “As far as being other people in the past goes, Mirella doesn’t have great recall—although she’s a thousand times better than most people. Most people don’t have a clue about whether they ever saw the earth before they were born this time around. Mirella does remember some of the really big things she experienced, and Kinzica ringing those bells and saving the day definitely qualify. Why do you think I named my dog Kinzica, and why has my dog stuck with me all these years? Like the girl Kinzica, we love Pisa and are determined to save it from harm!”

“Okay, I believe you.” Polly silently asked herself, “Should I?” and then resumed aloud, “So what do you know about San Ranieri and Santa Bona? I noticed they were from about your time.”

“Let’s clear up this time thing—now is my time as much as it is yours.”


“But to answer your question, San Ranieri—Saint Ranieri to you—died only eight years before I was born. But I know firsthand he truly was a saint who worked miracles because he cured my zio Roberto—Uncle Robert to you—who had been bedridden for years and just kept getting weaker and worse to the point everyone had pretty much given up. But zio Roberto asked to be taken to see San Ranieri where he was living at the monastery of San Vito.

“San Ranieri put his healing touch on my uncle and blessed him, and sure enough, by the next day he was stronger, and he kept getting stronger every single day—so much so that eventually he was able to go back to his work on their farm. He’d had to rely on his son and other relatives and neighbors to tend it, and that had been a great source of sadness and shame to him, even though he had no reason to be ashamed of what he couldn’t help. By the time I remember him, he was strong and healthy, and he stayed that way for my whole life. I must have heard the story of San Ranieri’s cure a thousand times—all my relatives were so proud of the connection, as well as grateful.

“Santa Bona, on the other hand, was only eleven or twelve years older than I was—except that she was already acting like a saint when she was a little thing, before I was born, and no one ever accused me of being a saint! So I’ve just gotten to know her since, well, you know. When I was incarnated, she was always traveling here and traveling there on some pilgrimage or another. And let me tell you, traveling then was nothing like what it is for you now—no cars or trains and airplanes, that’s for sure—but now she does a lot to help out folks who travel in such contraptions, especially flight attendants and people like that, to help them do their job and keep everyone safe. I’ll try to introduce you to her when you’re ready to fly back to New York, if you haven’t already met her by then.”

“Hi, Polly! How are you doing, Sofia?” said an attractive, deep woman’s voice.

Polly looked around her but saw no one who could qualify as the speaker.

“Santa Bona!” shrieked Sofia. “We were just talking about you!”

“I know. I was hanging around seeing how everyone was doing in this neck of the woods when I realized I’d become a topic of conversation. How flattering! I’m not usually a topic of conversation, you know, except for a few minutes of history in one schoolroom or another. I can’t stay—I need to head to the airport—but I wish you a wonderful stay here in Italy, Polly. Sorry, I have to be off now. See you, Sofia!”

“She sounds so normal,” said Polly.

“What’s that supposed to mean? Normal—for a spirit?”

“I don’t mean that. I mean, compared to what I expected for a saint.”

“Oh that. People have the wrong idea about saints. You’d like San Ranieri, too. He’s a lot of fun.”

“How could there be two saints from this one city right around the same time? With all the millions of people we have in New York, I don’t believe we’ve produced a single saint since anyone I know has been around. Maybe I’m wrong about that—I don’t much keep up with saints—but two from one fairly small city seem like a lot.”

“I’ve been telling you, Pisa is special—although we’re probably not producing very many saints right now, either. These times are pretty complicated. Not that my original era wasn’t: you should try living with no electricity and no running water. And not that I’m making excuses for bad behavior. Before we get off this subject of famous Pisans—not that I want to cut it short, but Flora should be here soon—I should remind you: the one and only Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa, but that was almost 400 years after I was born. I hear people talking about him as if he were ancient history. How do you think that makes me feel? But I don’t stay upset for long because, as I mentioned, time is not the same for us as it is for you folks with earth bodies. But we won’t go into that again. It’s way too hard to explain.”

“But don’t you ever get bored? I mean, it’s an awfully long time since the twelfth century. Do you always have some sort of project going?” Polly’s questions continued to tumble out. “Who were you working on last year? Have you worked with a tourist before? I get so frustrated because you don’t really explain things!”

“Slow down! People in your situation. . . .”

“You mean alive?”

I’m alive!”

“Okay, I know, but it’s different. Let’s not fight.”

“You’re the one who was grilling me.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I just get so puzzled about everything.”

“As I was trying to say, you aren’t supposed to understand some things completely while you’re doing a life. I have to follow the rules.”

“You? Follow rules?” said a pretty, dark-haired girl as she placed a small accordion under a chair next to Polly and sat down. Polly had been too intent on her conversation with Sofia to notice the girl’s approach. “Hi, Polly, my name is Flora. I’m a Gypsy! I’m not supposed to say ‘Gypsy’ to most people, but Sofia says you’re okay. She’s told me all about you.”

Wondering what “all about you” involved, Polly simply said, “Hi, Flora—why can’t you say ‘Gypsy’?”

“It’s supposed to be demeaning to my people, but I prefer ‘Gypsy’ to ‘Roma.’ After all, not all Gypsies are Roma, and I want to feel connected to my people from all times, everywhere. When I say ‘Gypsy,’ I see swirling colors in the skirts of dazzling, dancing women. That’s the kind of Gypsy I intend to be.”

“Flora lives up to her name. She’s a bit flowery, isn’t she?” said Sofia. “But that’s okay.”

“At least I’m not transparent. Got you!” Flora giggled.

Ignoring the dig, Sofia instructed, “Tell Polly your philosophy about having fun.”

“It’s true. My goal in life is to have fun. That sounds pretty shallow, I guess, but I don’t care because I know I’m not shallow. Instead, I’m on to something important.”

“She’s as much of a teacher as Mirella is. She can’t help herself. It’s in her soul.”

“I want so much to be a music teacher. I think I’d be pretty good because I figure out how to make practically everything fun—or at least interesting and full of drama. I have lots of problems—big problems—if you look at my life in the ordinary way, but that’s not the way I look at it. After all, how many girls get to be a Gypsy in Tuscany—an exotic beauty (that’s what I call myself, even if I have to skip a few details) here in the beautiful city of Pisa? The two beauties—Pisa and her Gypsies!”

Polly said somewhat timidly, “You make it sound exciting; isn’t it hard sometimes? I saw a taxi driver refuse to pick up a Roma, I mean Gypsy, family at the train station.” It was difficult for Polly to say “Gypsy” because she was afraid the word was hurtful to some Roma, but she honored Flora’s wishes. “They looked like a nice family, and they were angry about what happened. I don’t blame them.”

Just then, a middle-aged Roma woman approached the people at a table a few yards away. As Polly and Flora watched, the woman was rebuffed. She started toward the girls, but seeing Flora, smiled and waved and then turned to go inside the bar.

“Situations like the one with the taxi driver shouldn’t happen, but when most folks see a Gypsy, they immediately check for their wallet. I don’t believe in stealing, myself, pretty much whatever the reason, but I also don’t judge the Gypsies who do because some of them have a pretty hard life, and who knows how deep their need may be to find enough money to take care of their family?”

Flora continued, “My parents have always spoken out against stealing, and begging, too. They don’t think the excuses for it are enough justification, usually. ‘Stealing,’ says my papà, ‘is only for life-and-death cases, or nearly so, when no other alternative exists.’ My mamma sells roses to the tourists, and I play my accordion for the money people put into my cup. I’m pretty good; I like playing. For some of the other kids it’s just ‘squeak, squeak, squeak’ because they hate it and want to be playing football—which I think you call ‘soccer,’ Polly—or just about anything else besides the accordion. But even though my papà works hard at all the construction jobs he can get, we still need more money most of the time for the five of us. My two little brothers are too young to earn money any decent way, but I hope they’ll like music the way I do. Mamma has a beautiful voice, and sometimes she gets to sing ballads for the tourists—and gets a lot more money than usual for her roses.”

Sofia added, “To hear that mean Mme Meringue tell it, every single Gypsy anywhere—including you, signorina Flora—is just a dirty, sneaky, thieving outcast. In her mind, you’re even worse than her opinion of the African merchants—extracomunitari to her. For them, she at least makes an exception for Charles.”

“I’ll tell you what,” said Flora. “If I ever do take up stealing, I’ll practice on her. I don’t just get mad at people like her for my own sake; I get mad for my family, and my zio Romeo and zia Maria, and nonno and nonna, and lots of my friends, who are honest people, too, and proud to be Gypsies! Sometimes people ask why mamma and I don’t wear normal clothes all the time so we’ll fit in, but why would we want to deny our heritage—and all the colors are so pretty and make a kaleidoscope when we walk and dance.”

“Flora, you’re getting worked up! People will start paying too much attention to us, and when they realize there are three different voices at this table, they’ll accuse you of being a ventriloquist Gypsy and decide that’s the worst possible kind.”

“The way they think I bark like a dog?” asked Polly pointedly, but Sofia ignored her.

Instead, Flora said, “Sofia, if you’d learn how to speak under a roar, we’d have less to worry about. But what I want to say, Polly, is I love Pisa, even if a lot of Pisans don’t seem to love me. It’s my city as much as theirs; why shouldn’t I hold my head high? I have lots of friends—other Gypsy girls and boys, but non-Gypsies, too. It will be fun having you here this summer. Maybe you’ll decide to stay! Why don’t you convince your parents to buy a little place here; some Americans do, you know.”

“I think I’d like to stay, at least part of the year. It’s good that you and Sofia have each other.”

“Some people would call Sofia an unusual friend since no one can see her, but she’s a good sort, even though she can act a little stuck up, calling the Leaning Tower her tower and airing her knowledge.”

“Hey!” said Sofia.

Flora laughed and went on, “But she really loves Pisa, too, and sticks up for people like Mirella, Charles, and me when lots of folks don’t have the courage.”

“Do you live near here?” asked Polly.

“My family and I live in a little apartment over a store on the Corso Italia. Come along; I’ll show it to you.”

A Journey to One World, One Creation

Pleasant Mountain
Pleasant Mountain

Owl, Hawk, and Heron—
Benevolent messengers—
Fly with me to the mild woods,
The welcoming leaves and flowers
Along a Pleasant Mountain trail;
In a clearing I find Brother Simon,
A friend I knew in Italy;
We dance holding hands;
Francis and Clare make the circle four,
And songbirds rest on our shoulders.
As we dance, our numbers grow
Until all the world’s people sway on the melody,
The harmony,
While the Earth spins in our circle’s center.
Above us, the Sun waltzes with the Moon;
Our dear ones in spirit smile in witness.
Alone again, Simon and I hug in comradely caring,
Tearful but comforted.
And then Simon, too, is gone;
Lifted into trance on the drumbeat,
I remain with everyone.

Changing Attitudes, Changing Life

Sunset 3

“Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom. . . .”
–Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning[1]

In spite of the story the book tells, reading Man’s Search for Meaning, written by neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl in 1946, has given me hope, courage, and guidance.  Man’s Search for Meaning describes Frankl’s experiences as a concentration-camp inmate during World War II.  His original book and subsequent additions—a 1962 explanation of his philosophy and a 1984 postscript, “The Case for Tragic Optimism”—present his theory of psychology, called logotherapy, from the Greek word logos, or meaning.  Frankl’s memoir and essays explain how he was able to maintain his fundamental optimism and humanity, in spite of horrors and suffering that profoundly exceed any that I can imagine enduring and surviving.  The book also describes an approach to living that can help any of us master our everyday challenges and make the most of life’s opportunities.

Before looking at the work’s implications for those of us living fairly comfortable lives—as well as for those suffering together or alone—I want to address directly the subject of the hells that we human beings create for one another.  Frankl closes “The Case for Tragic Optimism” by saying, “. . . the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his [or her] best.  So let us be alert—alert in a twofold sense: Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of.  And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake” (114).  Those concentration-camp inmates who had the spiritual strength to comfort and aid others in spite of the hell in which they, themselves, were living show the heights of which we human beings are capable.  They were saints unbowed by the most profound inhumanity.  The scourge of inhumanity continues.  We who wish to relieve that scourge may not be saints, but we can do our best, and we can work to make that best better still.

Because Frankl speaks of Hiroshima, I will mention the 1946 book Hiroshima,[2] in which journalist and novelist John Hersey follows six survivors of the atomic bomb that the United States dropped on their city, killing tens of thousands of men, women, and children.  In the 1980s, Hersey returned to Hiroshima to continue the story of the individuals profiled in his original book.  Much as with Frankl’s observations, the seventh-circle-of-hell devastation and suffering that the bomb produced also inspired miraculous kindness.  For example, surgeon Terufumi Sasaki tended to injured survivors “for three straight days with only one hour’s sleep” (56), and Methodist minister Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a small man, helped and carried about twenty horribly burned men and women from a sandpit endangered by the tide to boats, transported them across the river, and lifted them onto safer ground (45-46).  The people whom Hersey and Frankl describe become fellow human beings with whom to identify.  It is too easy to lose the sense of individual faces, personalities, and histories within the statistics of a mass catastrophe or atrocity.  But once the statistics resolve into people carrying with them their souls and their stories, we can see that a single death or instance of inhumanity is too many.  Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning helps to offer an antidote to violence, cruelty, indifference, and despair.

Here are a dozen quotations from Man’s Search for Meaning that for me create a guide to finding greater significance and peace of mind in my life and to doing better by others, as well as myself:

  1. The salvation of man is through love and in love” (36).
  2. “. . . humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds” (40).
  3. “. . . everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (55).
  4. “. . . often it is . . . an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives [the individual] the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself [or herself]” (60).
  5. “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual” (63).
  6. “. . . human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and . . . this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death” (67).
  7. “. . . someone looks down on each of us in difficult hours—a friend, a [spouse], somebody alive or dead, or a God—and he [or she] would not expect us to disappoint him [or her]. He [or she] would hope to find us suffering proudly—not miserably—knowing how to die” (67-68).
  8. “. . . no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them” (72).
  9. “. . . the meaning of life differs from [person to person], from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment” (83).
  10. “‘Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!’” (83-84).
  11. “. . . happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue” (102).
  12. “. . . there is no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them. . . . Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past—the potentialities they have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realized—and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past” (112).

For now I want to look at the third principle, the truth that we human beings share the inalienable freedom and responsibility to choose the attitudes we take toward all the aspects and circumstances of our lives.  For Frankl, this central tenet of the philosophy known as Existentialism is linked with both hope and a belief in a spiritual reality greater than our individual time on earth.  Other than having a generally optimistic outlook, I can’t claim yet to have made good use of the power of attitude to inform experience, to use consciously the fact that “thinking [helps to make] it so” [3] in order to steer my life more effectively.

My one instance of consciously using attitude to inform experience occurred along with a three-week trip to Italy several years ago.  Granted, using attitude to benefit a vacation is the pre-kindergarten version of the practice, but the example was telling for me.  Before I left home, I decided that I would find the trip fulfilling and wonderful, no matter what.  And there were several no-matter-whats: emotional disagreements with a traveling companion with whom I soon parted ways, a train strike threatening to strand me in Naples when I needed to be in Pisa, an irate taxi driver who vented his bad day in a tirade directed at me as we drove through town, trouble finding a way home past midnight after an outdoor opera, a face full of hives from an allergic reaction to mosquito bites.  But the trip was genuinely, magnificently joyful and the source of glorious memories for a lifetime.  Because of my overall attitude, any problems and inconveniences were not able to make lasting inroads in my outlook and the ways that I experienced my time in Italy.

Those of us fortunate enough to travel for pleasure usually leave many of our everyday stresses and responsibilities behind us while we’re on vacation.  Nevertheless, I believe that consciously choosing my attitude toward the events and circumstances of my life will help me during both ordinary and extraordinary times.  Choosing my attitudes—rather than letting my feelings and thoughts arise haphazardly—will help me to overcome my troublesome, if mundane, physical, emotional, and spiritual discomforts.  (It probably goes without saying that the attitudes one chooses must be grounded in the plausible.  For instance, deciding that I am a beautiful twenty-five-year-old is not an attitude but a delusion.)

Here is a defeating belief that I’ve been carrying around with me:
I have not earned the right to regard my writing as deserving a place of priority in my schedule.
Some of my underlying thinking includes this: If I don’t accept all—or nearly all—of the social engagements that present themselves to me, I am in danger of alienating my friends, of being ungrateful, and even of someday being alone.  Similarly, if I don’t respond to as many of my acquaintances’ casual requests for assistance as I possibly can—no matter how depleted my current store of spiritual and physical energy and of time—I am being selfish and unkind.

I have allowed that generally detrimental outlook to direct important parts of my life.  But writing is the form of creative expression that most fully engages and responds to my mind, spirit, abilities, values, beliefs, and desire to be of service.  So now, based on a more carefully reasoned interpretation of the facts, I choose the following attitude:
Whatever its limitations and strengths, my writing represents some of the best of what I have to offer others and to share of myself.  Therefore, writing deserves to have an honored, nearly inviolable place in my week.
If I don’t write regularly, I will lose the opportunities emerging through my blog; I will fail to develop any potential my writing holds to be useful to others, and I will continue to experience life as if part of my psyche were imprisoned.  Of course, solitary hours for writing and reflection will not be allowed to replace—but rather to complement and enhance—time with dear friends and family.  In addition, true emergencies and deep needs that I have the ability to ease will supersede even the most sanctified entries on my calendar.  But my writing times deserve more than to be thrown over willy-nilly.

The process of choosing one’s attitudes toward circumstances and events bears a little resemblance to reciting affirmations, such as repeating, “I am a strong woman.”  The theory of using affirmations is that repetition of a positive statement will eventually turn it into an assimilated belief and then into reality.  But I think that Frankl is asking us to go far beyond rote repetition of what and how we want to be.  He is asking us to determine actively our outlook and then consciously to live by its implications, opportunities, and demands.

All of the other principles from Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning that I have quoted above also encourage me and have the potential to guide me.  I expect to incorporate them into the ways of thinking, being, and doing that will, I hope, begin to characterize my life from this point forward.  I have a long, long way to go, but I’ll try to do my best.

[1] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Part I translation by Ilse Lasch (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006, Kindle edition).  Opening quotation: p. 55.

[2] John Hersey, Hiroshima (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

[3] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2: “Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Waltzing with You

Sunset 2

Twirl me through the mist
Into the darkness
Under the stars;
Swirl through the heat waves
Cooling under the Moon;
Reach up with me
Following you,
Your lead, your warmth,
Profound and reassuring;
Flowing, drifting on summer,
I close my eyes
And fly on feet floating on triple meter,
Curling once more
Into encircling melody.

Lack of Preparation

How did I grow so old,
I, who was meant to stay sweet and young forever
And studied hard to be an excellent child;
I am sorry that through my lack of vigilance
I have become what I am not prepared to be.

(Note: My parents never tried to keep me a child, but I tried to find my place out in the world by being a good girl—in spite of a rebellious streak.)

The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 5

Santa Maria della Spina
Santa Maria della Spina
Palazzo dell'Orologio, Pisa
Palazzo dell’Orologio (Palazzo of the Clock), with the Torre dei Gualandi (known commonly as the “Torre della Fame”—the “Tower of Famine”) to the right

Stories of the Past and Future

After her afternoon class was dismissed, Polly walked up the Corso Italia toward the Arno River, glancing in store windows along the way. She wished she had time to browse in the Feltrinelli bookstore, but that could wait until after she met with Sofia. Sofia seemed to thrive on having people meet her in places she assigned. At least, Polly thought, I’m getting to learn my way around the city.

Polly tried the doors of Santa Maria della Spina, but they were locked. The frilly white church was as small as a one-room cottage, yet the church was real. She’d read that it was called “della Spina”—“of the Thorn”—because it once had contained a thorn from Jesus’s crown of thorns. Whether or not to believe that story, Polly didn’t know, but it certainly was a pretty little church. She’d also read that in the 19th century it had been moved piece by piece from down even closer to the river and then reassembled here on its higher perch above the water.

“You could have looked in the bookstore if you’d wanted to; I have lots of time.”

“Sofia!” said Polly. “You scared me again!”

“What shall I do? Tap you on the shoulder? I can’t very well let you know I’m around by stamping my feet. I could cough or something.”

“I’m sorry. I’m still a little unused to all this. I’ll get better. But please stop spying on me!”

“I wasn’t spying. I simply noticed you standing at the Feltrinelli window as I passed by.”

Polly continued to feel annoyed: “You could have said something to me back there if it was okay to be late.”

“I didn’t think of it. I forget about you embodied folks and your obsession with time. Time is a convenience to me when I have dealings with you guys, but mainly it isn’t very relevant to me—think about it.”

“I see your point. As I said, I’m still a bit jumpy.”

“Possibly some leftover jet lag. I’ve heard it’s quite a problem—not that I’m familiar with the concept from personal experience. But let’s get off all that. Don’t you want to know about Mirella?”

Polly had had her fill of studying the façade of the tiny church and was sitting on the ground, leaning against the wall above the Arno. A couple of tourists were photographing the church from this angle and that in the late-afternoon sun, and she and Sofia stopped talking as one came within earshot of their conversation.

When she felt it was safe, Polly answered in a soft voice, “Of course; that’s why I’m here.”

“First I’d better tell you what she was talking about—or what Dante and Shelley were talking about. Mirella’s pretty worked up at both of those guys for saying mean things about Pisa.

“Here’s the story. About a hundred years after my earth time, there was a count by the name of Ugolino della Gherardesca. In 1284, Count Ugolino became the chief magistrate, the most important man in all of Pisa. In that era, two important parties vied for control. They were called the Guelphs and the Ghibellines—a little like your Republicans and Democrats only a whole lot less well mannered, if you can believe that.” Sofia snickered.

“Shh! They’ll hear you,” whispered Polly, nodding toward a tourist who had glanced up but then evidently decided the noise he’d heard had been traffic on the nearby bridge.

“Anyway,” continued Sofia, “Count Ugolino was a Guelph, but Pisa was full of Ghibellines, so he had a lot of enemies. Ugolino made peace with some of Pisa’s Guelph neighbors—city states like Florence, Lucca, and Genoa—and gave away a bunch of castles in the process, which certainly didn’t please the folks at home.

“Count Ugolino’s biggest mistake was trying to team up with the Ghibelline Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini, who also wanted to be numero uno in Pisa. The archbishop spread the word that Ugolino was a traitor and had him locked up in the Torre dei Gualandi, along with his two sons and two grandsons. Ever since, people have called the Torre dei Gualandi the Tower of Famine—like in Shelley’s poem. It’s part of a palazzo not too far from my tower.”

It still bugged Polly that Sofia called the Leaning Tower “my tower,” as if everyone who ever visited it were invading her space. “I read about the Tower of Famine in my guidebook,” said Polly, a little more curtly than she’d intended. “That’s not the tower where Mirella lives, is it?”

“Good grief no—Mirella would have nightmares! Ugolino and his sons and grandsons all died in that tower. Of course the big question has always been, how? Oh sure, they all got next to nothing to eat, but who died last? Who survived the longest? I’ll tell you who Dante says it was, and who Shelley says it was—good old Count Ugolino himself.”

“I know, I read about that, too. As Count Ugolino’s sons and grandsons died, one by one, the count supposedly ate them. It’s so unbelievably gross.”

“People have been believing it for more than 700 years.”

“But is it true?”

“Who knew—for centuries, who could say? Maybe the Ghibellines made it up, or maybe the count really was too much of an omnivore for most people’s taste. Well I knew, of course, and lots of other folks like me, but it wasn’t our place to say. Now even embodied people have finally learned the truth.”

“Stop stalling and tell me! I’d hate even walking by a place where something like that happened!”

“Something terrible did happen in that tower, no matter what. But not too long ago the bones of Count Ugolino and his sons and grandsons were actually discovered—just where you’d expect, in the family crypt at the Chiesa di San Francesco, right here in the city. I’ll take you there; the church is so pretty, and there’s a nice peaceful cloister. A famous professor, dottore Francesco Mallegni, from the University of Pisa, studied the bones for months and finally told the real facts—nobody ate anybody in the Tower of Famine, but five people did starve there.”

“It’s a sad story, but why does Mirella get so upset about it? It did happen more than 700 years ago; she still sounded mad about the whole thing.”

“As I told you, Mirella was a professor once, a pretty important Dante scholar, but she lost her job when she told her classes the Inferno is about folks she knew personally. She has a soft spot for Dante—I’ll let Mirella herself explain to you why—but she holds it against him that he’d even hint the count was a cannibal. Mirella has been sticking up for Count Ugolino from the beginning. She hates the idea that Pisa would have an undeserved bad name. She just can’t get past those cruel lines from people she admires so much—Dante and Shelley, that is. I’ll tell you the truth: Mirella is not half as crazy as people say. In my opinion, she’s not crazy at all, really, just a bit naïve and a little short of common sense sometimes. She’s a good sort.”

“When you say she stuck up for Count Ugolino from the beginning, what do you mean? The beginning of what?”

“Mirella will explain. Anyway, it makes sense that Mirella would choose San Michele in Borgo for her recitations. Five hundred years ago, San Michele in Borgo was the church for the University of Pisa. On the front of the church there’s still some campaign graffiti about an election back then for a rettore—that’s the president of the university. Mirella believes the university would be better off now if students continued to elect the president, the way they did in the old days. Most of her students thought she was great. It was the administration that wasn’t too thrilled about her. San Michele in Borgo was even here when I was walking around, but it’s changed a bit from its early days. I wouldn’t have recognized it if I hadn’t kept up, over the years, you know.”

Polly was getting sore from sitting on the ground, but she didn’t want to break Sofia’s flow of information, now that it had, in fact, gotten underway. Polly felt just as confused as ever, but maybe if Sofia kept talking, the details of the summer Sofia had mapped out for her would begin coming into focus. She squirmed as discreetly as she could.

“Mirella’s a natural-born teacher. She always has been and always will be. Some people have an incredible drive to fill their calling. I had that, too,” Sofia added, surprising Polly with the hint of self-reflection.

By following that hint, Polly risked staying in the dark longer about her summer assignment. But she asked anyway, “What did you want to do if you’d grown up?”

“I wish I could have been a stonemason, the way my father was. I would like to be able to look at one of the pillars in the Leaning Tower and tell myself, ‘I carved that capital,’ or know, ‘That pattern there is from my own chisel—my skill and imagination,’ just the way my father can.”

Was Sofia’s father around, too? It made sense, Polly supposed. All she could think of to say was, “I’m sorry. You seem so happy and confident.”

“It’s okay. I shouldn’t have gone onto that track, but I’m in kind of a bad mood today—nothing about anyone walking around now, though. You know, maybe I wouldn’t be here helping Pisa all these centuries later if I’d gotten what I wanted. Anyway, you girls now are lucky in some ways—not in every way, of course. My earth era had some special things, too. But you have lots of careers you can choose—even though still not very many women are stone carvers or stonemasons. I might have been tempted to come back if I could have helped build St. Peter’s, in Rome. The work is in my blood, so to speak. What do you want to do when you grow up?”

“I love languages so much. I’d like to be a translator, but only for things that interest me. I don’t want to be translating computer manuals. It’s lovely to take an Italian poem and try to make it sound good in English but still say what the poet intended. We had to do that in class today—just a little poem—from Italian into our own language. Then we read our translations aloud to each other. Most of the time you could kind of tell it was the same poem, even though I mostly didn’t know the students’ native languages.”

“What are you going to do to support yourself, or are you planning on a rich husband? I’d bet that doing English translations of Italian poetry won’t exactly bring in a steady income—even though it probably should in a perfect world.”

“I also want to be a teacher—and a writer.” Polly squirmed discreetly again, but she still didn’t want to end the conversation.

“Will you write about me?” asked Sofia in an uncharacteristically shy tone.

“If you’ll let me. Maybe you’ll help me?”

“I’ll be your toughest critic! But I’ll be fair.” Polly could tell Sofia was pleased by the idea of finding herself in print.

“Why don’t you come back as a woman stonemason now so you can fulfill your dream? There must be some women who do that work.”

“Much of what my father did is done by machine these days—so it’s not the same. And most of the buildings people are putting up now don’t appeal to me at all. In earlier centuries I did think about returning, but I still couldn’t see any good opportunities for a woman, and I had no intention of doing time as a man. They’re okay; I like some of them a lot, but I wouldn’t want to be one. Now I could be a sculptor, perhaps, but I can’t abandon Pisa, not even for just a lifetime. I could live here, of course, but a body gets in the way of some of what I do. Besides, I’m Sofia. I’ll always be Sofia. I don’t really want to water myself down by being someone else for a while.”

A tour bus pulled up next to Santa Maria della Spina, and a group of Americans began climbing down and filling the small piazza in front of the church.

“Tomorrow after your afternoon class, meet me at Feltrinelli,” whispered Sofia. “You can go inside. I’ll find you over by the books about Pisa.”

“What are we going to do then?” Polly whispered even more softly, but there was no answer. She still had barely a clue about the plans that Sofia had in mind for the summer.

Reluctantly she headed back down the Corso Italia in the direction of Mme Meringue’s house. But realizing there was still time before cena at seven, Polly happily delayed reaching that destination by spending half an hour wandering through the Feltrinelli bookstore. Their collection of books about Pisa—especially the Leaning Tower—really was wonderful. After looking longingly through an impressive, and expensive, photographic study of the tower that illustrated every little detail, from the bells to the smallest designs in the marble, Polly bought herself a guide to Pisa for young people; the book’s Italian looked manageable.

A Voice of One’s Own

Winnie on a swing

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?[1]
–Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

One afternoon this summer when I was playing Frisbee with my ten-year-old cousin, I decided to try a handstand.  It didn’t go well, but no bones broke, and for a moment my legs were airborne.  The decades that have passed between my handstands in our yard when I myself was ten and my attempt this summer seem like a single lightning strike of time.  I don’t regret having reached the upper limits of what anyone could possibly call “middle age.”  But what I do regret is that as the years flashed by, I somehow failed to fulfill my chances to have a husband and children, sustain my career as a teacher without drifting into academic byways, earn a fancier degree, and bring my parents and myself peace of mind.  Other, related, regrets attach to these.

I know I am greatly blessed.  My life has been filled with joys and adventures.  Yet I never completely found my footing.  I feel I could have done much more with my life, for the benefit of others and for my own satisfaction.  And because I never married and don’t have children, I also suspect that I’ve failed as a woman.  While I never regard other single or childless women this way, I do see myself as one who didn’t make the grade.

Now that I am old, or nearly so, how do I turn from regret to new determination and a sense of satisfaction?  How do I stop grieving what I had planned to do with my “one wild and precious life” and move on to doing my best by this life in the long or short time remaining?

One of the most promising answers for me is writing.  Finally I think I can sustain that cure.  Last week I finished setting up my blog and completed an entry, and voilà, for a couple of days I was no longer Has-been Spinster Winnie.  In my mind I became a full-fledged adult whose experiences have brought her to an interesting point in life and given her insights and observations to share.  By the beginning of this week, Has-been Spinster Winnie was sneaking back, but again I’ve evicted her—or at least given her notice—by forcing myself past my looming, recurring obstacles to writing.

My determination to write, no matter what, received a boost yesterday when I reread A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf.  The book is an expansion of lectures that Woolf delivered in October 1928 on the topic of women and fiction.  The resulting essay explores the conditions that make it possible for women to thrive as authors.  Of all the wonderful words, explanations, and guidance in A Room of One’s Own, this passage means the most to me: “. . . it is much more important to be oneself than anything else.” [2]  And I’m beginning to accept that being oneself means embracing all the warts and wrinkles, accomplishments and debacles, hours of bliss and seasons of despair.  The lives we have lived and are living are the oracle from which we draw our truths.  No two people share exactly the same vantage point out over life.

The books about writing that I have scoured over the years and the writing workshops and conferences I have attended have all presented their Commandments for Authors.  And every genre has its thou-shalt-and-shalt-not stone tablets.  Virginia Woolf reminded me that the gurus who demand our writing match their dictums are misleading us about the inviolable, eternal nature of their pronouncements.  Their rules may very well express the qualities currently in vogue; following the rules may ease the path to publication.  But following the rules has little to do with an author’s success in giving voice to his or her inspiration, creativity, insight, and soul.  Did William Shakespeare adhere strictly to the revenge-tragedy formula of his time?  Did Jane Austen follow all the guidelines of her era?  How about Emily Dickinson?  What about Virginia Woolf for that matter?  Here is what Woolf has to say about bending writing to the measurements of others:

Praise and blame alike mean nothing.  No, delightful as the pastime of measuring may be, it is the most futile of all occupations, and to submit to the decrees of the measurers the most servile of attitudes.  So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters, and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.  But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery. . . .

And so at last I truly believe that instead of bemoaning much of my past, I can use it to inform, inspire, and add meaning to my “wild and precious” present.  While others speak most clearly through different arts, I have long been obsessed by writing and have written quite a bit over the years—my job as a speechwriter demanded it, for instance.  But until now I had not fully allowed myself to jump into the swirling sea of memory, to write with abandon, to give full voice and appreciation to my years.  Today and all my tomorrows, I embrace Virginia Woolf’s counsel:

Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of [things], hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast.  By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of [the means] to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.[3]

[1] Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 94.

[2] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929, http://gutenberg.org.

[3] Original quotation: “Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast.  By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel. . . .”

The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 4

San Michele in Borgo, Pisa
Top section of San Michele in Borgo, photographed from across the Borgo Stretto (which means “narrow village”)

The Professor without a Classroom

The next morning was cool, with perfect blue sky. Polly stood at her window watching her new neighbors heading off to work on foot and motorini—motor scooters—and in little cars like those still lining both sides of the street. How lovely it was to be about to head out for the day herself, and how strange that she should feel enthusiastic at the prospect of school. She liked her school back in New York well enough, some subjects anyway. But just last week she had celebrated the last day of the school year with the same enthusiasm as her classmates’.

Mme Meringue was nowhere in sight. After quickly swallowing the light breakfast of a brioche and orange juice that her landlady had laid out for her in the kitchen and then washing her plate and glass in the sink, Polly closed the front door behind her and tugged to make sure it was locked. She was used to a heartier breakfast and hoped there would be time for a snack later in the morning. Lasting until lunch without a rumbling stomach would be impossible.

Polly walked down her street and then turned the corner to Via Cesare Battisti. She almost passed the nondescript entrance to the Scuola Linguistica per Stranieri a Pisa—the Language School for Foreigners in Pisa. The small sign for the school was at the bottom of a column of similar small signs announcing the presence of various offices and agencies.

The floor of the tiny entrance lobby was made of blue and white tiles forming a swirling mosaic. A travel poster of the Leaning Tower hung on the far wall. Just around the corner and up three stairs waited an ancient elevator, but Polly chose to walk up the five flights to her school, past the closed doors of the offices and agencies, one to each level.

The door to the Scuola Linguistica was open, however, and signor Poletti, the school administrator, was inside, working at his desk. Throughout Polly’s summer of language lessons, signor Poletti would nearly always be working at his desk or sitting there talking with students and teachers. He proved to be kind, reserved, and efficient, even though he usually seemed a little hassled from his worries of one kind or another.

Sono in anticipo,” said Polly—“I’m early.”

Non troppo,” he answered—“Not too much”—and showed her into one of the classrooms, where a copy of a multiple-choice placement test had been put at each seat around tables arranged in a large square. Out of the window she could see the Carrara Mountains in the distance, the white marble at their summits glinting in the morning light. A ceiling fan spun slowly.

Polly usually worried a lot about tests—she hated them—but for some reason she was now calm and confident. She hadn’t even been nervous about walking into the school and announcing herself to signor Poletti, and she wasn’t nervous about working her way through the test choices—the answers she knew, those she thought she might know, and those about which she hadn’t a clue. She just ripped along, not second-guessing herself. It was nice to experience what it must be like for some of the more happy-go-lucky kids in her class, the ones who didn’t care if their grade came back an A or a C. No doubt having spent part of the past evening with a spirit girl had changed her perspective a bit. At the very least, everything now had an edge of unreality, as if she were casually watching her experiences from outside herself.

After the multiple-choice questions came an oral interview with one of the four young women who would teach the four course levels. Polly hadn’t had much chance to hold real conversations in Italian before her trip, just the stilted ones with her classmates in signora Martinelli’s course and a couple of after-school chats with signora Martinelli herself. But she’d been getting along okay in the language for a couple of days now—not to mention her conversation last night with Sofia. So at least she didn’t have to try to make her brain switch gears the way she did back home when she changed classes from English to Italian.

The young man ahead of her came out from his interview, and the teenaged girl in line behind Polly said, “Go on!” But Polly waited to be called in, hoping that this girl who was now looking so impatient wouldn’t be in her class. The other students waiting for their interviews or chatting in the office area ranged from a few boys and girls about Polly’s age to adults at least the age of her parents.

The examining teacher finished making her notes and signaled Polly’s turn. The teacher was pretty and proved to be an expert at relaxing jittery students by sticking with the simple questions: where Polly was from, what her interests were, how much Italian she’d studied. Polly saw her write “3” next to her name on the roster.

The first morning of school was over. Signor Poletti reminded her to return after lunch to meet her new class.

Her first stop outside was the café on the corner—the Bar Allegro—for a slice of spinach omelet wrapped in thin focaccia dough. She bought a second slice and a bottle of mineral water to save for lunch later. It was only 10:30, and she’d be hungry again by early afternoon. Polly thought it was funny that perfectly proper establishments for a light meal or for coffee or juice were called “bars.” Just about everyone Polly saw at the bar was drinking coffee and eating some kind of pastry. Given Italian breakfasts, it was no wonder to Polly that the other patrons, too, needed a snack about now.

Most of the customers stood at the counter to eat and to drink their beverages, and she joined them, trying to look as if she did this all the time. She’d been cautioned that sitting at a table and being waited on would double or triple her bill.

Leaving the bar by the door opening onto the boulevard that led to the train station, Polly saw five of the African merchants Mme Meringue called extracomunitari. She recognized the man she’d exchanged buona sera with the evening before, and there next to him was Charles. He spotted her, and they waved to each other before she turned away from the station to head toward the Arno River and the bridge leading to the Borgo Stretto, a street that was closed to cars.

Polly had plenty of time before she was due to meet Sofia. She spent the next two hours wandering along the Borgo Stretto—glancing into café-bars and shops—and exploring the even narrower side streets and alleyways. The medieval buildings had pink, red, and purple flowers flowing over their balconies. Down at the end of one narrow street she found a pretty church that was hundreds of years old, and wandering farther still, she stood in front of the Teatro Verdi, Pisa’s opera house. Polly imagined walking inside with a ticket in hand for an opera performance. She would wear her green velvet dress and her new shoes with the little heels.

Sitting on an opera-house step, Polly ate her lunch and continued to daydream about attending a performance inside.

She looked at her watch and saw she was due at her appointment with Sofia in ten minutes. Hurrying back to the Borgo Stretto, Polly started to stiffen inside, anticipating Sofia’s strident voice in her ear at any moment.

Polly had earlier located the Chiesa di San Michele in Borgo and so returned there easily, but so far Sofia had not made her presence known. Standing on the steps of the church was a tall, slender woman who, after a few moments, began reciting in a voice as loud as Sofia’s: “Ah, Pisa, you bring curses down upon the people of your beautiful city!”

The woman delivered these surprising lines as though she were an actress in the Teatro Verdi opera house. She flung out her arms on “Ah, Pisa,” paused, and pointed her finger at a startled tourist trying to take a photograph of the church from across the narrow street. “Even though Count Ugolino betrayed you and your castles, you should not have condemned his sons to such a fate,” she continued sternly. The tourist looked around to see who else was paying attention, spotted Polly a few feet away, shook his head, and hurried up the street. The orange and white cat sitting on the steps beside the woman was a more appreciative audience. He regarded his human companion as if he admired her dramatic skill.

Apparently finished with her recitation and now commenting to the cat, the woman said in a more conversational tone, “My dear Dante, you write beautiful words but sanction curses that are undeserved!”

“I see you’ve found Mirella,” said a voice that was becoming familiar but was now unusually quiet—just a whisper in Polly’s ear. Polly jumped anyway, in spite of having been expecting Sofia for several minutes.

“What’s she talking about?” Polly whispered back, trying not to move her mouth. She didn’t want anyone thinking she was as odd as the lady on the church steps.

“She’s reciting Dante’s Inferno,” said Sofia, forgetting to continue keeping her voice down.

A woman who had paused on her way up the Borgo Stretto glanced around. “Very good!” she said to Polly, assuming Polly to be the source of the young voice. “You’ve been paying attention in school. Too bad she’s crazy,” the woman added, pointing to Mirella. “She must have paid attention in school, too.”

Mirella had sat down next to her cat. She pulled back her long gray hair as though planning to wrap it into a bun but then let it fall in disorder over her shoulders. “They refuse to listen to me,” she said audibly to the cat, who continued to look attentive. “No one cares about anything anymore—not about my Dante, my Pisa, or even the truth, and certainly not about literature, which carries truth even when it speaks falsely.”

“Mirella loves Pisa, too,” Sofia said proudly.

“Shh,” Polly whispered to Sofia after the woman who’d spoken to her had gone on. People will think I’m talking to myself. They’ll think that woman and I are a pair.”

“You could do worse.” At least Sofia made the retort quietly. “Look, Act Two’s beginning.”

Mirella didn’t seem very young, but she rose as easily as a girl and smoothed the neatly pressed denim skirt that came down nearly to the top of her sandals, which looked too big for her slender feet. The cat turned his head as if for a better view.

With her palms up, Mirella thrust one arm forward and the other out to her side and declaimed in a clear, powerful voice that sounded on the verge of tears:

Amid the desolation of a city
Which was the cradle and is now the grave
Of an extinguished people, so that Pity
Weeps o’er the shipwrecks of oblivion’s wave,
There stands the Tower of Famine.

Mirella dropped her head and spoke just loudly enough to be heard: “Dear young Shelley. You, too, speak falsehoods against the city that welcomed you.”

“That’s Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘The Tower of Famine’ she’s reciting now. He was a famous English poet, and he lived right here in Pisa for a while, down at the end of this street.”

“Yes, of course I know he was a poet. I’ve heard of Dante, too, for that matter,” said Polly, still a little hurt by Sofia’s “you could do worse” comment. “What’s the cat’s name?”

“Byron. I guess you know he also wrote poetry—the real Byron, not the cat. The real Byron once lived around the corner. He was a great poet but a little nuts. People say sometimes he rode his horse right in the front door and up the grand staircase. People didn’t even behave like that in my era.”

“Where does Mirella live?”

“In a tower—don’t look so startled—not my tower. It’s another tower, over near la Sapienza—that’s part of the University of Pisa. There are lots of towers in Tuscany; you should know that by now. Most of them in these parts are square, not round like my tower. Look, I hate whispering, and you look pretty funny trying to whisper without even moving your mouth. After your class, meet me in front of Santa Maria della Spina—that’s the tiny church right next to the river.”

Polly didn’t feel she was being polite to stare, even though Mirella acted as if she were on a stage. Still, Mirella seemed largely oblivious to the small audience of passersby that had formed and was now dispersing. Having finished once again with her recitations, she sat back down, smoothed out the wrinkles in her skirt as she had before, and said something more to the cat, but this time she spoke so softly that Polly couldn’t understand the words. Byron rearranged himself as if to go to sleep, but his eyes remained open and alert and seemed to be studying the comings and goings of the lunchtime crowd along the Borgo Stretto. Suddenly he sat up straight and said, “Meow!” as if he meant business.

“Woof,” said what sounded like a small dog who also meant business, but no dog was in sight.

“Kinzica, get back here!” Sofia hollered, causing two more passersby to turn and look at Polly, wondering where the dog was that she was calling.

“Woof, woof,” said Kinzica, louder still, and then, “Woof, woof, woof!”

Byron clearly had a low tolerance for rudeness in dogs. Ever so slowly, with disdain in his expression and every move, he rose to all four paws and arched his back, his raised fur making him look twice his size. Then he bounded down the steps of the church.

“Byron!” Mirella called after him. “Come back! Leave Kinzica alone!”

Byron ignored her and rushed into the street, hissing and meowing as he ran.

“Woof, woof, woof!” repeated Kinzica.

“Stop it, Kinzica!” scolded Sofia in a voice as loud as her dog’s. “Leave Byron alone!”

“Where’s the dog?” asked a woman who was among the half-dozen people who’d paused to see what was going on with Mirella’s cat.

“I don’t know,” answered Polly, wishing she were somewhere else.

“But you were just talking to it!” said a scornful-looking teenaged girl who turned to the boy with her and said, “She’s as crazy as the old woman!” She gestured toward Mirella but then shrieked and grabbed her friend’s arm as Byron ran to within six inches of her feet, stopped as if he had slammed on the brakes, and began a cat fit such as Polly had never seen before. He pounced, spat, hissed, swished his tail, ran back a few feet, ran forward again toward the cowering teenagers, and nearly completed a back flip whose ultimate lack of success broke the rule about cats always landing on their feet.

“Woof, woof, woof, woof, woof!” said Kinzica as if she were laughing.

Byron righted himself, and with as much dignity as he could scrape together, gave one last ferocious hiss and turned toward Mirella, who had continued calling him to her during his tantrum. With his tail in the air, he walked haughtily up the church steps and sat down behind his human.

“Woof,” repeated Kinzica, but this time Byron did not take the bait.

“Now don’t be mean,” Sofia said as well as she could, given her own laughing fit.

In spite of herself, Polly was laughing so much her stomach hurt.

“Well I’m glad it’s funny to you,” said the teenaged girl. “I think you’re weird. You laugh so hard you sound like two people. Come on, Paulo,” she said to her boyfriend. “Let’s get out of here.”

“I think you have a problem, dear,” said the woman who’d asked where the dog was. “You’re a talented little actress; your barking sounded quite real, but why do you need to call so much attention to yourself? And to torment that poor cat so!”

Embarrassment stopped Polly’s laughter. It was only her second full day in Pisa, and already she was afraid she’d ruined her reputation and would be known forever around town as the “barking American.” She tried weakly to defend herself: “It wasn’t I!”

“You can’t have been looking at Polly if you thought she was doing the barking!” said Sofia, making matters much worse.

“Of course not! I was watching that poor, demented cat,” said the woman before she’d had time to analyze the situation. But then she added, “Who said that?” sounding half angry and half alarmed.

Without responding to the woman or glancing at the other stragglers who’d been watching Byron’s cat fit—and hearing a conversation with more speakers than visible people—Polly abruptly turned and headed back down the Borgo Stretto toward the Arno River.

She reached the bridge across the Arno that linked the Borgo Stretto with the Corso Italia. Like the Borgo Stretto, the Corso Italia was a shop-lined street set aside for people on foot, bicycles, and motorini. Polly was relieved when she had crossed the bridge and could once again feel anonymous. Dodging tourists and motorbikes, she hurried down the full length of the Corso, past inviting stores and café-bars, to her afternoon class.

Polly climbed the flights of stairs to her school and was sent into the classroom for level three. A friendly young Kenyan named Simon, who would be known in class by the Italian version of his name, Simone, pronounced “See-mo-nay,” sat down next to her on the left. A pretty longhaired Polish girl—Anna—sat to her right. The three chatted a little; both of her neighbors seemed to speak better Italian than she did. They sounded more secure. Oh well, she’d do her best.

The ceiling fan creaked. This was not its first summer. Brown shutters softened the sun’s glare and traffic noise as Polly and the others held conversations on topics assigned by Elena, their kind young teacher. Elena called the students “ragazzi,” kids—much more pleasant than the “people” that had been her past-year homeroom teacher’s favorite term, as in, “People, please pay attention!” Elena was wonderfully interesting and encouraging. Polly was thrilled; as the words flew, she understood almost everything.

The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 3

Tower at Night
Evening at the Leaning Tower

A Spirited Assignment

The cheerful, strong voice resumed: “Another nice view from here, don’t you think? More attractive than your room at Mme Meringue’s, wouldn’t you say? All that fluffy white! La Meringue takes her name a bit too seriously.”

“I hadn’t thought of that. But how do you know what my room looks like?”

“I saw it: ‘I’ll bet mamma and papà would appreciate a letter now and then.’” Her Mme Meringue imitation was unmistakable for what it was.

Polly jumped up and felt a strong urge to run all the way out of the Campo dei Miracoli. “You were there this afternoon! Were you spying on me? If you were there, why did you make me come all the way out here to talk to you? Will I have you following me around all summer?”

“Calm down. I’m not going to be spying on you. I have better things to do. I did have to check out your summer plans and make sure your parents won’t be hanging around—that was necessary research. And today’s visit was to prove what I can do. You may find my talents useful as we get into our work. As for your coming here tonight, the tower is my home; I invited you to my home because it’s beautiful and I’m a hospitable girl.”

“What is ‘our work’? This is the first I’ve heard about it! How do you know I’m going to help? And who are you, really? I mean, who were you when you were alive, and why are you here in Pisa now?” Polly could still feel the heat in her face from her shock at realizing Sofia had been watching her earlier in her room—and who knew how often before that. Had Sofia started spying while she and her parents were in the hotel? On the plane coming over? Back in New York?

“Too many questions! I am Sofia; I told you that, and I’m as alive as you are, just minus a regular earth-style body, meaning one your type can see. I lived here in Pisa as a mortal girl from 1168 to 1180.

“When I was growing up, Pisa was a great power on land and sea, an extremely important city—it still is, in my opinion! My father was a stonemason working on the first phase of the Leaning Tower. Although he was highly skilled, we were anything but rich, and our family lived in a two-room stone cottage on the land of a wealthy merchant. We grew olives and grapes, as well as beautiful vegetables of many kinds. We shared our oil, wine, and produce with the padrone, who was kinder than many and let us keep enough for our needs. My mother and we older children did most of the work in the garden, orchard, and vineyard because my father was so busy, and some of the time he was away at the quarry in the mountains selecting the best marble.

“I didn’t mind the work at home, but whenever I had a chance, I ran off to watch my father and the other men building the tower. First they carved all the pieces, which were then put together like a huge, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.”

“How do you know about jigsaw puzzles?” Polly said skeptically.

“I didn’t just stop learning in 1180, you know! Mirella likes puzzles—you’ll be meeting her. Sometimes I help her find where the pieces go. I have an eye for patterns. I’ve been observing how things fit together for centuries now.”

Hesitantly, Polly asked, “What happened to you in 1180?”

“That’s enough about me for now. I need you to help me make some things better for three of my Pisans.”

“Are they, uh, disembodied, too?”

“Of course not. You’ll be able to see them just fine.”

“Do they know about you?”

“Of course! Generally the people I try to help know me for who I am. It’s just too hard, otherwise—plus, it bugs me when I’m ignored. It’s not as if I make a pest of myself, most of the time, anyway. You’ll be surprised how many people around here know me. They just avoid talking about it to those who don’t—except for Mirella; she says whatever’s on her mind, no matter what. You’ll see her tomorrow. She forgets sometimes that most people don’t think the way she does—too bad more don’t. Anyway, Mirella used to be a professor, until she got fired.”

“Fired? Oh dear, what did she do? And where does she fit in with this work you talked about?”

“You’ll see when you meet her,” Sofia answered cryptically.

“How did she—how do people find out about you?”

“The same way you did. I say hello.”

“Have you ever said hello to the wrong person?”

“People who aren’t ready to deal with my type usually make some excuse to themselves about what it is they’ve heard—they blame their imagination, mostly. Now your Mme Meringue hears me; that’s for sure. But she’d never in a million years believe I’m the spirit of an ordinary girl. Her husband, Gustavo—he’s a nice guy, but he died a few years ago and doesn’t come back too often since Minou (the name suits her to a T) has some lessons to work on alone—Gustavo was a religion professor and was quite wise about things; too bad only the being religious rubbed off on Minou, not the being wise. Oh well, that’s where we come in.”

Polly struggled to follow Sofia’s chain of thought. Lingering jet lag, not to mention the strangeness of the situation, didn’t help any. Polly looked around at the beautiful scene surrounding her and at the handful of tourists still milling about. She felt as though she’d been dropped onto the cathedral steps by magic. How in the world had she ended up chatting with an invisible girl at dusk on the Campo dei Miracoli as casually as she’d chatted on the phone with friends back home?

She returned her focus to what Sofia was saying: “Gustavo may not want to interfere in Minou’s earthly lessons, but I have no such scruples, and I hope you’ll agree with my perspective.”

Polly also had to work hard to keep up with Sofia’s surprisingly up-to-date and polished Italian, spoken at a good clip. Sofia rattled on: “Anyway, one day Minou’s convinced I’m the archangel Michael, and the next I’m Gabriel minus his horn. I wouldn’t have thought these guys—and no, I haven’t met them—sound like a girl, but Mme Meringue gets so thrown hearing a voice supposedly coming out of nowhere that she doesn’t think about such details. Wait until you see how your Mme Meringue spends her free time—trying to cause trouble for the folks I’ll be introducing to you.”

“Are you planning to do something to Mme Meringue?” Polly asked with trepidation. After all, Mme Meringue was Polly’s landlady. She’d been nice to Polly so far, even if she were a little unusual and judgmental. Polly felt she owed her some loyalty.

“Reform her, if I can—I have some ideas—otherwise run her out of town, someplace where she can’t cause trouble for so many people. Maybe New York would be good, if I could figure out how to get her there. She’d just be lost in the crowd.”

“We’re not so bad in New York!” Polly said indignantly. “But then Mme Meringue really doesn’t seem so bad, either.”

“Wait and see,” said Sofia. “Just wait and see. Well, anyway, we’ll keep her in Pisa if she shapes up as I hope she will.”

Polly realized the light had completely gone from the sky, and the Campo dei Miracoli was nearly deserted. “I’d better go soon, so we should get to whatever else you wanted to talk about. I can’t help you very much if I get kicked out the first night and have to leave Pisa. Are the buses even still running?” she asked nervously, having completely forgotten to check the return schedule. She looked back toward the archway through which she had entered the Campo dei Miracoli.

“There’s one more in about ten minutes. Stand across the street from where you got off. Yes, you’d better go on now. You’ll be okay. I’ll be around to make sure, but it’s pretty safe.”

“You haven’t explained very much! I don’t even know why you’ve been hanging out in Pisa all these centuries. And you said you wanted me to help three people, but I’ve only heard about some Mirella and learned that Mme Meringue is a little odd, which is not really big news—even if I can’t believe she’s some kind of villain, as you seem to think.”

“Tonight I mostly wanted us to get to know each other a little better. Meet me tomorrow afternoon at San Michele in Borgo—that’s a church—on the Borgo Stretto; that’s the pedestrian street on this side of the Arno River. Walk up from the river; you’ll see a big marble church on the right side. Come about 1:30. That will give you time to eat your pranzo after your morning lessons. Don’t worry, I’ll find you—and I’ll give you time to get back for your afternoon class.”

“Why should I meet you there?” Polly asked.

“Oh, sorry; I thought I’d told you. Mirella should be in action about then.”

“What do you mean, ‘in action’?” Polly asked, but there was no answer except for a firm “woof” from a small dog that sounded right next to her but was nowhere to be seen. “Can I at least meet your dog, Sofia?”

Still there was no answer, except for a second, softer “woof.” Sofia had said she’d be “around,” so Polly decided she must be ducking further explanations of her plans for the summer. Sometimes it must be pretty convenient being invisible.


Polly turned the key in the lock as quietly as she could. The front door squeaked as she gently pushed it open, but she could hear a television whose high volume didn’t finally abate until after she was in bed and struggling to fall asleep over the voices and laughter floating up through her open window.

Once relative tranquility replaced the TV noise, Polly found that lying in bed in her own room in Pisa felt blissful, like waking up inside the perfect dream. She even had to admit that pretty much every moment of the day had been blissful, too, in spite of being rather surprising and still a bit puzzling. The night air through the open window carried the pleasing sounds of neighbors on a nearby balcony, along with the smell of their late-evening barbecue. Polly looked forward to meeting more Pisans.

She was excited to be about to begin Italian lessons in what she’d already decided was one of her favorite cities in the world, right up there with New York. And her life in Pisa certainly seemed more exciting so far than her life in New York, even if her guidebook claimed Pisa could be a little bit dull. More than likely, its author hadn’t bothered to stay in town long enough to get to know more than the famous sites—and also probably hadn’t encountered any Pisan spirit girls.