Learning to Love Learning

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The Tables Turned[1]
-William Wordsworth
Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?
The sun above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.
Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.
And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.
She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

In “The Tables Turned,” William Wordsworth urges us to get out into Nature and discover her lessons firsthand, rather than through books.  Both in and out of the classroom, the kind of learning that inspires—that changes us for the better and stays with us—is learning through direct or active experience infused with encouragement, enthusiasm, and joy.

I remember what a Pueblo community looks like because I drew one in fourth grade, not because one was described to me.  Dinosaurs thrilled me because I learned how they acted and made drawings and clay models.  I didn’t just memorize their names and vital statistics.  Lessons on the Solar System stuck with me because each of us third-graders took the part of one of the planets—I was Mercury and announced, “Mercury is 36 million miles from the Sun!”  In college, I absorbed medieval history because Dr. C. told us about the lives of the church figures; he talked about them as real people.  The dates of European wars and reigns didn’t stay in my mind past the end of the course in which they had to be mastered.

I was blessed to attend concerts, plays, and ballets from an early age, but a love of the arts can be awakened at any time of life.  I think, for instance, of the adult college student I sat next to at the Kennedy Center for a performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto.  The young man was there because attending a concert was an assignment for my course, but he was thrilled by the cascading music and the prowess of the pianist, and whether or not he has ever attended another concert, that night in the Kennedy Center remains a part of his life.  If I had simply played the piece for him in class, the lasting impact would probably have been negligible.

I stopped my own music lessons when I was in high school.  The problem was that the lessons were delivered as if I were planning to be a concert pianist or flutist, and the scales, exercises, and exacting standards overwhelmed the pleasures of simply playing.  Greater emphasis on sight reading and on expressing my interpretation of each piece could have changed my outlook so that music lessons and practice became a delight rather than a chore prompting stress and the fear of making a mistake.  The elements of technique can be gradually introduced as a means of making the music even more satisfying and beautiful.  Children who clearly are motivated to become professionals can progressively have more intensive training in technique—as they are ready and as the training avoids killing the joy, love of music, and self-expression.

I love writing for several reasons: my parents loved writing; my tenth-grade English teacher showed me how to organize my ideas and had the class compose poems and essays on topics that interested us; reading books inspired me to want to express my own ideas; my master’s-degree program included developing my own responses to literature; I have opinions and observations I want to share; I have had some satisfying outlets for sharing my writing, and I have a level of confidence about my skills.  The confidence has been generated by the fact that instruction and correction have not fully overwhelmed opportunities to experiment with and practice creative writing, receive positive feedback, and find satisfaction from my efforts.

Even so, I hear the swarming critics and their opinions in my head and have to write in spite of them.  Someone with less of a drive to write could have been squelched completely.  The discouraging voices included many of my teachers and some workshops and writers’ groups.  While the voices did not tell me I couldn’t write, they gave forceful and conflicting opinions about what my writing should be like.  My choice was either to become further paralyzed by the critics or to reject them and make my own decisions about what I want to say and how I want to say it.  I’ve finally done the second—with occasional lapses in confidence.

By the time I led a poetry group in the mid-1990s, I understood that the way to develop strong writers is to give comments such as this: “I especially like your ________; could you tell me more about that?”  As a teacher, I did not help students when I covered their papers in corrections.  I hope that the honest positive comments I also added helped overcome the excessive corrections, but I certainly discouraged some people in my classes.  I think I encouraged some, too, but I worry about those I let down and hope they have found someone since who has erased any discouragement they felt from me.  Of course, student writers need to learn the tools for effective writing; these can be introduced sequentially, as the student is ready, rather than as a heap of problem areas to be overcome en masse.  For example, for one week’s assigned paper, the emphasis could be on making sure that all sentences are complete, or that pronouns are used correctly.

I would like to teach an online writing course for adults.  I want the ten-week course to encourage and motivate, rather than discourage, overwhelm, and intimidate.  Here are my plans:

  1. From the Internet, I will select interesting, rich, yet accessible poems by a variety of poets. We will discuss (in an online forum) the ideas in some of the poems and look at the poets’ use of language to convey meaning vividly.
  2. Every other week, students will be asked to select one of the poems and write their own free-verse poem on the same topic, a poem that fully expresses their own ideas, experiences, and perspectives.
  3. Students will share their poems (online) with the class.
  4. The class will provide feedback of the “I especially like _______” and “I’d like to hear more about ________” type.
  5. Each student will then be asked to turn his or her poem into an essay for the following week.
  6. In addition to focusing on conveying ideas clearly, every essay assignment will focus on one or two stylistic issues, such as the correct use of punctuation or effective content organization.
  7. During the course, each student will study enough about one element of style to develop a short written guide for the rest of the class.
  8. When I evaluate the essays, I will address the students’ success with the elements under current focus. I may also indicate one or two other areas needing particular attention in the future.  The bulk of the evaluations, however, will point out the most successful aspects of the essays, particularly in communicating the theme.
  9. The students will share their essays (online) with the rest of the class.  Classmates will point out the strengths to carry through to the next essay.
  10. I will occasionally share a professional essay or other piece of writing with the class to illustrate interesting approaches and effective writing strategies.
  11. At the end of the course, I will give every student suggestions about how she or he might expand and continue the writing completed over the past weeks. For example, for some, the poems and essays could become the basis of a memoir, or perhaps a blog.  Students will also share their own insights and suggestions for future writing.

If such a course interests you, please let me know!

[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45557/the-tables-turned.

Inner Light

Photo for Inner Light

The day gushed rain
And then gave mild blue skies
With a rumor of coming cold
Not felt in the air
But read in the fading leaves
Dying before frost
Could open their colors.

I walk in meditation
And the world rolls away;
Sometimes Alone sneaks in
And I shutter my chakras
Of energy and empathy,
Feeling myself unworthy.

Torrents of worry teach:
Take one step
And then another;
Repel the rumbling landslide
Of menacing possibilities
Stirring up duststorms
Of what-if and what-have-I-done;
Neither evade what must be
Nor fear the yet-to-come;
Rehearse plays, not troubles;
Repel hurt,
Releasing indignation,
Beckoning understanding.

Resolved:
I will honor the day,
Doing what I truly can,
Releasing the rest
Until such time
As it steps forward,
Confronting me.

When I respect myself,
I sharpen my vision
For others’ struggles
And others’ goodness:
Their that-of-God-within,
And God is always within.

The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 10

La Pausa 2
At the Bar Allegro

Mme Meringue on a Mission

Flora beckoned to Polly: “Over here! Here’s Charles.” Polly recognized the boy she’d seen at Mme Meringue’s and later waved to on the sidewalk.

“Hi, Polly! Come, I’ll introduce you to everyone. This is Salime,” Charles said, indicating a middle-aged man whose greeting of “Piacere” had soft edges like Mme Meringue’s Italian. Polly shook hands with him. He was the man she’d greeted as she’d walked by on the way to catch the bus to meet Sofia at the Leaning Tower. Salime sold sunglasses and an array of colorful hats.

“Here’s Henry,” said Charles, introducing Polly to a handsome, tall young man who was arranging handbags on the sheet in front of him. He, too, said “Piacere” as he paused a moment in his work to smile at Polly.

“And this is Ibrahim.” A man wearing a hat and shirt in a kente-cloth design shook Polly’s hand. “Hi, Polly and Flora. And hi there, Sofia—I know you’re here, too. Try not to get us in trouble,” he said, grinning. “And they say we intimidate the tourists.” Ibrahim sold t-shirts. The ones in view said “Università di Pisa” on them.

After the introductions, Polly, Charles, Flora, and—Polly was sure—Sofia returned to a spot near the Bar Allegro, where the girls had met the day before, and sat down on the sidewalk where they could lean against the wall. In front of them, Charles’s baskets and carvings formed neat rows on the sheet spread out toward the curb. The beautiful baskets were made of colorful reeds woven into pretty round shapes, like bowls and vases with lids. The carvings depicted animals—antelope, elephants, and zebras—or were in the form of masks that might have hidden the face of a warrior or an actor depicting mighty and fearsome scenes.

Polly felt content in the company of new friends and was enjoying looking around at the passersby. She could see down as far as the train station and back north as far as the Piazza Vittorio Emanuale II. Her contentment was short lived, however, because there trotting toward them along the side street was none other than her very own landlady. She was moving with a speed and determination that could only mean one thing: she was on a mission. “Look who’s coming,” said Polly.

“God’s chosen minion,” said Sofia, snickering.

“Now you keep quiet,” said Flora. “Charles doesn’t need any extra trouble from your upsetting her—and I don’t either, for that matter!”

The temperature was about ninety, and the humidity felt just as high. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The children and merchants were in the shade of the arcade, but Mme Meringue had had no such protection, and to Polly she looked most like a giant raspberry Popsicle beginning to melt. Her hot-pink sunbonnet drooped in front and on both sides, and her matching pink dress hung in damp wrinkles around her ample figure. She was breathing so hard by the time she reached them that Charles was prompted to say, “Mme Meringue, you should get something cool to drink.”

“No time, no time,” she muttered, having shuddered to a full stop right in front of him. “Charles, what are you doing here, after all I’ve talked to you about earning an honest living!”

“I’m sorry, signora,” Charles said politely. “I have to work. I have to support my family. And I have all the proper paperwork to be here.”

“Don’t contradict me! Don’t I pay you good wages to work for me?”

“I’m sorry, Mme Meringue. I would never talk back to you.”

Polly wondered how Charles could stay so calm and polite while she was having trouble not shouting at Mme Meringue about how unfair she was being.

“Come along home, Charles. I’ve offered to give you a room in my house, but you insist on living over signor Luigi’s smelly shop. I don’t understand you young people.”

“You’re very kind to me, signora, and I like working for you, but I have to do this work, too. It gives jobs to the people back home who make the baskets and carvings.”

“There’s no excuse for living outside the law, which is exactly what you’re doing. Maybe if you’d stop hanging around Gypsies”—she spat out the word and glared at Flora before turning back to Charles—“you wouldn’t be so blasé about outlaw activity.”

“I’m sorry, Mme Meringue,” Charles repeated calmly. “I’m behaving lawfully.”

“But is that true for all your friends here?” She waved her hand to indicate the other merchants. “You’re supporting lawlessness, even if you’re not technically breaking any laws yourself.”

“I’m sorry,” Charles repeated again.

“Sorry isn’t enough.” She seemed to notice Polly for the first time. “Polly, what are you doing here? What would your parents say!”

“She was just looking at my baskets,” said Charles.

But wanting to take a stand against her landlady’s prejudices, Polly said, “Flora here is my friend.”

Mme Meringue scowled again at Flora and then said, “You should go on home, Polly—now. I’m off to find agente Barto and make him do his duty. He’s no doubt hanging out in the station coffee bar instead of doing his job keeping our streets safe.

“It’s his break time about now,” said Flora.

Mme Meringue glared at her once more and turned to march on down the street past the merchants. Polly heard her say, “Go back home, all of you,” as she was alongside Ibrahim.

“Be careful in this heat, signora,” Salime said in a kind tone of voice, but the solid pink figure moved on toward the train station as if she hadn’t heard.

“What’s she going to do?” Polly asked, breaking the silence with which they’d watched Mme Meringue’s departure.

“Don’t worry. We go through this little routine with your landlady every couple of weeks,” said Charles, smiling.

“You said people back home make your baskets and carvings? They’re so pretty!”

“My mother and some of the other women in our little town make the baskets. My older brother goes around to lots of different towns and villages and buys the carvings from local artists. Then he sends them to my father and me to sell here in Italy. The money we earn—beyond what we need to live—goes back home to support our family. I have four little sisters and a little brother.”

“Don’t you feel lonely away from them?” asked Polly.

“It’s sad for our family to have to be split up like this, and I’m homesick a lot. I do miss my mother and brothers and sisters. I don’t get to see my father in Rome very much either because of the cost of the trip, but I’m lucky to have this opportunity to help out.” Charles spoke matter-of-factly, not sounding the least bit sorry for himself.

“Let’s get some mineral water while we still can,” Flora suggested.

Still feeling nervous in spite of Charles’s reassurance, Polly asked, “Is there going to be trouble?” A rumble of thunder seemed to underline ominous possibilities.

Flora answered, “Agente Barto is one of the nicest guys in Tuscany.”

And Sofia added, “Relax, we have it under control.”

“Your saying something is under control doesn’t make me feel very secure,” said Polly, “considering the little scene with Byron and Kinzica that had people thinking I was barking.”

“Ha, ha,” chuckled Sofia, not bothering to defend herself.

Big drops of rain began falling on the street. A flash of lightning brightened the dark afternoon, followed in seconds by a loud clap of thunder. “I’ll go get the water—my treat,” said Polly.

The bar was busy now with office workers stopping for an espresso on their way home. On the television suspended in the corner, the heroine of an American crime drama was mysteriously speaking Italian.

After waiting her turn, Polly almost asked for four mineral waters, frizzante, before remembering that Sofia didn’t drink and asking for tre acque minerali.

When she returned to distribute the water to her new friends, she found Flora and Sofia in near hysterics from laughing and Charles smiling as if in spite of himself. The rain was beating down, and it felt cozy there under the sheltering roof with these merry friends.

“Look who’s returning,” gasped Flora between uncontrolled giggles.

Coming closer with each second was the substantial pink figure who had left them a few minutes before. This time, the “Popsicle” was rapidly dissolving. The rain streaming off Mme Meringue’s hat made a waterfall surrounding her head, and the skirt of her dress clung to her legs so that she had to keep pulling at it to be able to walk. Accompanying her was a debonair police officer who managed to look dashing even as his own hat shed water and his well-tailored uniform shone with the rain. He was gallantly holding Mme Meringue’s arm as if to stop her from sliding all together into a large pink puddle.

“Don’t be so mean!” Polly said to her laughing friends, trying not to laugh herself but feeling uncomfortable, too.

“I’m sorry,” said Charles. “I feel a little bad for her.”

“Well I don’t,” answered Sofia, as she and Flora egged each other on with their laughing fit.

“Flora, you’d better be calm now,” Charles said in his usual mild way. “It’s just all the more difficult for agente Barto if we give her a hard time.”

The girls’ guffaws settled down into snickers. “And please stay quiet, Sofia,” Charles added.

“Wasn’t I good before?” Sofia asked in a voice so loud the approaching pair must have heard.

“This would be the right time to be good again,” Charles said calmly.

The three visible children sat against the wall, watching and listening as the policeman and Mme Meringue reached the shelter of the arcade. Henry, Salime, and Ibrahim remained on folding chairs near their merchandise.

“Here they are, just as I left them!” Polly heard Mme Meringue say in a voice that was intended to be heard. “They aren’t even afraid of the law!”

“Hi, Ibrahim. How’s the family, Salime? How’s business, Henry?” Agente Barto greeted them all. “Flora, my dear, how’s the accordion playing? Are you practicing scales the way I told you? Charles, I see you’ve met our young American visitor.” How, Polly wondered, did he know about her already? Had he heard about the dog episode on the Borgo Stretto?

At that, Mme Meringue said disgustedly, “You’re supposed to be arresting them, not making small talk! Do your job, agente Barto!” she commanded.

“Yes, signora. I see your point, if there’s anything illegal here. Well, men,” he said, addressing all of the merchants, “it looks as if I’ll need to see your sales permits or ask you to fold up. We have to help our Mme Meringue see that the rules are followed.”

Beh,” observed Mme Meringue, “when I’m around to make you follow them. And Polly, why haven’t you gone home the way I asked you to? We can’t have you fraternizing with these people. What would your parents say about my supervision?”

Polly was sure she heard agente Barto whisper, “Hi, Sofia,” under cover of Mme Meringue’s voice. How did he know about her?

The men rolled up the sheets with their wares inside. “See you, agente Barto!” Salime called as he headed for the corner with his big pack slung over his back.

“Good day, Mme Meringue,” called Charles.

“Bye, Flora. Say hi to your mom,” said Ibrahim.

Again Mme Meringue’s comment was, “Beh,” but she added, “some raid,” and, “I’ll talk to you at home, Polly.” Mme Meringue headed back out into the rain in the direction of her house and walked as though oblivious to the weather.

“I’ll see you girls,” said agente Barto. “I left my coffee on the station bar. It’ll be cold by now,” he added with evident regret. The policeman glanced toward the retreating Mme Meringue, shook his head, and started back toward the station.

“Woo woo,” whistled Sofia at the back of the handsome officer.

He turned and called, “Behave yourself, Sofia! You’re too old for me.”

When he was out of earshot, Polly asked the other two girls, “If Charles has a permit, why did he leave, too?”

“Ibrahim is the only one who doesn’t have a permit,” Flora explained. “He’s applied, but it hasn’t come through yet. I found out that’s where the guys were yesterday—trying to learn what the delay is. The others don’t want Ibrahim singled out for trouble—and they don’t want agent Barto actually having to check permits in front of Mme Meringue. She’d like them all to go, legal or not. They don’t fit into her notion of the perfect Pisa.”

“Why doesn’t Mme Meringue report agente Barto to his boss if she thinks he’s not doing his job?”

“That’s easy,” said Sofia. “Agente Barto’s son—he’s called Enrico—was really crazy about Mme Meringue’s husband, Gustavo. Enrico had some problems at school, and Gustavo tutored him every week for a while. He even had meals sometimes with our Minou and Gustavo—she wasn’t so bad when her husband was alive. I think she still has a soft spot in her hard little heart for Enrico, even though he never did finish school and agente Barto worries about him a lot.”

“Enrico does odd jobs and hangs around with a rough crowd,” added Flora. “It’s too bad; he’s really cute.”

“No surprise about that,” said Sofia. “Look at his father.”

Maybe Sofia really did have a crush on agente Barto, thought Polly. Was that possible?

Harry’s Magic

Butterfly 2
Everyday magic
The Harry Potter Novels, by J. K. Rowling:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)

I have read each of the seven Harry Potter books more than once, listened to the audiobooks for all of them at least twice, read three of the novels in Italian as well as English, and read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in French, too.  I own Italian audiobooks of the first two novels in the series and have listened to them countless times, in part to practice Italian and in part for the joy of immersing myself in Harry’s universe.  Of course I took my place in line at the bookstore when new volumes of the series were released.  My great pleasure in the novels could be credited to pure escape from such adult problems as sleepless nights and worrying work, but escaping is just a fraction of the attraction J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels have for me.

In the stories, Harry is a preteen and then a teenager; I identify with him even though I could be his grandmother.  Part of the reason is that I remember my preteen and teenage years especially well.  As for nearly everyone, my first two decades have continued to illuminate, enrich, and haunt the decades since.  The only era that is sharper in my memory than my rocky adolescence is the period from age two through six, when I was, I believe, among the happiest children on the planet.  My schoolyears paralleling Harry’s in the novels were the most discouraging time of my life.  I only this month finally exorcised the ghost of my high-school days by attending my fiftieth reunion and unexpectedly enjoying myself—after I had approached the reunion with the same trepidation with which I used to enter Brandywine High School on the day of a big test.

In school I craved a lasting close friendship such as Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley have together.  In spite of their magical powers, they are believable and realistically complex young people.  I can’t lose myself in fantasy peopled by improbable personalities living in worlds with practically no link to my own, but I can lose myself in Harry Potter’s experiences. The rules of Harry’s universe are clearly defined and unswerving.  Within the overlay of magic and the castle-like school, many of the characters’ joys and difficulties parallel those that readers have known.  Among them are family pleasures and problems, bullies, misunderstandings between friends, unfair judgments and treatment, a need to push back boundaries, and relationships with the full gamut of authority figures—including the vindictive (Severus Snape), the cruel (Dolores Umbridge), the tough but fair (Minerva McGonagall), the deadly dull (Professor Binns, who hasn’t let becoming a ghost stop him from reciting centuries of names and dates), and those who substitute style for substance (Professors Lockhart and Trelawney).

Some of the delight of the books is naturally in the magic and the richness of Rowling’s imagination, from the Hogwarts Express to Dobby the house elf to Luna and Xenophilius Lovegood to Horcruxes.  Our actual universe encompasses enough incredible wonders—and daily life on Earth includes ample mystery—for an ability to cast spells, dive into the Pensieve to relive the past, Apparate, or walk for a time with the dead to seem simply an extension of known reality.  But in some ways, Harry, Hermione, and Ron live in an appealingly simpler world than ours, one in which conversations are conducted face to face rather than by cell phone or on social media, and owls, not text messages, convey correspondence.  For Harry, Hermione, and Ron, chess pieces are animated, but they are real, not virtual.  Homework is written on parchment, not a laptop, and the Hogwarts Express is pulled by a steam locomotive and has a candy vendor who rolls her cart through the aisles.

For Rowling’s witches and wizards, community is stronger and more inclusive than for most of us now.  Harry, Hermione, and Ron do not consider age differences when they strive to overcome Lord Voldemort, see Rubeus Hagrid as one of their closest friends, and revere Albus Dumbledore for his wisdom and distinctive personality.  Minerva McGonagall is sometimes intimidating, but she is never mocked as an old-maid schoolteacher.  Each character assumes a role suited to his or her time of life.  Some abuse the power of their positions, but no one is relegated to greater or lesser importance because of age or gender.  Hermione, for example, is strong willed, courageous, and an exceptionally enthusiastic student, and I am happy when I see a little of her in me.  Throughout the books, admirable qualities appear or are deficient in both children and adults.  Even in her manner of writing in the later novels, Rowling does not create boundaries between the word choice and level of subtlety usually selected for children and a style that is more complex.

Harry and his friends confront some of life’s most difficult challenges, particularly the death of loved ones, the power of evil, and life-and-death risks for themselves.  Although the three friends always eventually triumph, they find no easy answers.  Harry is a Seeker in Quidditch, and also in the Quaker sense of seeking to grow in understanding: the reasons people act as they do, the nature of individual responsibility, and the relationship between the living and the dead.  Such questions are not only for childhood but also continue to engage us throughout life, and Harry confronts them with a depth of inquiry suited to any age.  In the front of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling quotes William Penn, and so perhaps suggests the Seeker-Quaker connection is not unreasonable.

The novels’ characters are vividly depicted, consistent, rich in their qualities and attributes, and highly credible within their world.  To get to know them over the course of the more than 4,000 total pages in the U.S. editions of the books has been to add dozens to my share of close acquaintances.  I not only compare them to people I have known; they themselves help to people my life.  Harry, Hermione, and Ron have joined Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth March[1] as best friends who continue to accompany me long after the weeks spent reading their stories.

[1] Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, first published 1869.

The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 9

Mme Meringue’s Story

During cena, Mme Meringue was unusually quiet, only asking Polly two questions about her day at school and a single question about how she’d spent her time since class had let out: “What did you do after school? I’d hoped you’d be home in time to go to church with me, but I guess a young girl like you needs to run around a bit after sitting all day.”

Polly answered noncommittally, “I talked with some of my new friends and explored a little.”

By the time they were eating their after-cena gelato, the silence felt more uncomfortable than peaceful, especially in light of what Polly suspected as its cause. “Are you okay, Mme Meringue?” she asked tentatively.

Her landlady sighed but answered, “Yes, of course.”

But after another minute filled by two more sighs from her, Mme Meringue said, “Polly, I just don’t know what is wrong with me these days. I simply don’t look forward to things the way I used to—to my Bible-study group, my quiet evenings at home, my work in the churches. Nothing’s really wrong. I’m not upset over anything in particular. I meet my responsibilities and keep my home in order, but the fire has gone out for me.”

It was hard to imagine a more on-fire person than the one Polly had seen in action at the church a couple of hours earlier, but Polly guessed she more or less understood what Mme Meringue meant. At cena last night, too, she’d noticed the tired, wilted appearance around her landlady’s eyes, a look that came from more than temporary fatigue. The look deepened when the older woman seemed lost in her thoughts. “You must miss your husband,” Polly said a little shyly, not wanting to risk saying the wrong thing but also not wanting to ignore Mme Meringue’s melancholy.

“Of course I miss Gustavo,” Mme Meringue said brusquely, “but that’s certainly not the problem. Gustavo and I always agreed that if one of us were left alone, we’d go on full throttle, doing the best we could with the life with which God blessed us.”

Listening to Mme Meringue’s tone of voice, Polly would have thought she’d offended her and misjudged the situation. But Polly also noticed the few tears that had washed into Mme Meringue’s eyes at Polly’s words. By the time Mme Meringue had shaken her head, the tears were gone.

“I shouldn’t have bothered you with my little troubles, Polly. A girl your age wouldn’t understand.”

“I don’t mind. I do understand a little. I read lots of books and think about things a lot.” When Polly’s dog, Taffy, had died last year, Polly had awakened for several days afterward feeling as if she’d been swallowed up by a dark and bottomless hole in the earth.

“I’d like to hear about your husband—what he was like—if you don’t mind telling me.”

Mme Meringue was silent so long that Polly thought she really had offended her landlady this time, but then she said with a mixture of sadness and pleasure in her voice, “My Gustavo was a man among millions, the best of the best. I met him when my parents sent me to Florence to study art history. He was my teacher for a religion course I added to my program. And no, I am not ashamed of this little bit of scandalous romance in my life. Actually, Gustavo was as without scandal as they come. Even though he was working in Florence, he refused to live anywhere but Pisa, and he made the round trip every day by train. He was such a saintly man, but no one found him stuffy. He liked to laugh and tell stories, but he really was very spiritual and tried hard to be good and set an excellent example.” The description fit the kind-looking man in the portrait over the buffet.

“Do you have any children, Mme Meringue?”

“We didn’t have children, but everyone was Gustavo’s child, or student anyway. He was always helping people with their problems. People came to him all the time to talk about something or other that was bothering them. He would listen and listen. Usually he talked privately to the people who came to consult him, so I don’t know much of what he said to help, but Gustavo was a true believer, so I’m sure he gave the folks some spiritual guidance to support them in their time of need.

“I love Pisa because of Gustavo, but frankly, I think he was too good for the place. And if he were alive now, he’d be appalled. What I see on the streets in broad daylight! I never told him my reservations about Pisa, because he loved it so much, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but I think he should have gone to Rome, where the important religious people are and he could have been more fully appreciated.

“The trouble with Pisa is it has too many independent thinkers who aren’t sufficiently grounded in religious teachings. I truly think all the trouble started with Galileo, although the ground was laid before that. With such a big university in a small city, it’s no wonder free thinkers are rampant. It’s not that I really disagree with anything Galileo had to say, but he shouldn’t have gone around jumping on the bandwagon and questioning authority the way he did. If the church said the sun revolved around the earth, they certainly had a good reason for saying so, an important spiritual lesson for the people. And here Galileo went around messing with their divinely guided teachings. I blame Galileo, I really do, for starting the kind of behavior we see among our young people today.

“I’m not a cold woman. Really I’m not. I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I don’t want the riffraff to destroy my Gustavo’s Pisa. I can’t say it’s really ever felt like my Pisa, but I’ve made the best of my time here, and I’m trying my hardest to continue Gustavo’s wonderful work. But he was too easy on people. He never wanted to say anything bad about anyone, not even those wretched Gypsies.

“I keep trying to preach the gospel to the Gypsies, but not a single one does anything but taunt me. I try to speak to the old people praying in the churches so that they can go straight to heaven and not suffer the trials of purgatory, but I get turned out of the churches for my trouble. I try to get the Pisans to emulate the lives of their very own saints, San Ranieri and Santa Bona, but I don’t see anyone even trying, in spite of the fact that just about everyone seems so proud these saints were Pisan.

“I do love the beautiful churches around here, and the Leaning Tower is pretty impressive, I have to admit, even if it is a symbol of nothing but pride and boastfulness. Still, my Gustavo loved the tower, and so I like it for his sake.”

Polly didn’t know how to respond to the confidences Mme Meringue had shared, so she said, “Your husband sounds like a wonderful person.” Polly simply couldn’t find Mme Meringue completely idiotic and worthy of scorn, the way Sofia seemed to do. Mme Meringue certainly tended to be prejudiced and narrow-minded, but she was always kind to Polly, and now Polly had glimpsed this sad side of her life and felt even less able to ridicule her. Polly wondered what Sofia would say. Sofia “lived” to help others, but she didn’t suffer fools. Yet Mme Meringue wasn’t a fool, however much she might occasionally act like one. Still there was no denying that, at least according to Sofia, she was causing big trouble for some people about whom Polly was already beginning to care. It certainly was a dilemma.

The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 8

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Piazza Vittorio Emanuale II

Mme Meringue’s Message for Pisa

Polly had just slammed the door to the street when she heard in her ear, “The old biddy isn’t home.”

Polly almost managed not to be startled, and her heart only flipped over once. “You’re shouting again!” she complained. “And who’s calling someone old?”

“Age is a state of mind,” Sofia replied primly. “So she’s old and I’m not. But listen: I saw Mme Meringue leaving her house just now, and I know where she’s going. Come with me to the Chiesa del Carmine. Minou loves putting in an appearance there about this time of day because she’s sure of finding some locals who’ve stopped in after work, plus the usual tourists.”

A short way farther up the Corso Italia, they came to a plain church with a small piazza in front of it. “Wait ’till you see the inside!” said Sofia, adding, “No, I came before the church. It’s from the 14th century.”

“There’s Mme Meringue,” said Polly, who had turned to gaze down the street. “She’s near the bookstore.” Polly’s landlady slowly walked in their direction, everyone else—except the window-shoppers and yet another pair of tourists studying a map—passing her as they headed north. The reason for her slow pace was evident: she kept glancing down at a sheet of paper she was carrying.

“Hurry. Come on inside and take a seat near the back somewhere where she won’t notice you. Pretend to be praying. I guarantee a good show.”

The unadorned stucco exterior seemed to be an entirely different building from the exuberant explosion of colors and swirls, angels, and saints that greeted Polly inside. “People kept adding stuff, century after century,” Sofia said in what sounded like an apologetic tone, but Polly thought the church was beautiful. “Now hurry up and sit down,” Sofia ordered.

Polly was happy to sit, to take a deep breath and absorb the peacefulness that lived within the church. To her, it seemed eternal in there, untouched by the bustling outside world. She felt suspended in time as she watched a few tourists moving about almost silently. One paused in front of an ornate fresco. A few Pisans from the neighborhood prayed silently. It seemed normal time would stay frozen until Polly was ready to restart it by stepping out onto the street. A lay worker busied himself at the altar with some preparation for the next mass but was gone after Polly glanced back to see if Mme Meringue had entered the church. She unexpectedly felt like bowing her head and saying a little prayer for her parents and for her grandmother, who had been ill.

Polly heard the door open and then softly bang closed. Sharp heels rang out on the stone floor. Someone wasn’t making any attempt to avoid disturbing the worshipers. When the footsteps had passed, Polly looked toward the front while still keeping her head down. There was no mistaking the comfortable form striding at what seemed for Mme Meringue to be an uncomfortably rapid pace toward the altar.

Polly watched her stop, pivot on the spot, and immediately shout, “Pisans, behold the truth!” Minou Meringue’s voice needed no amplification to carry clearly, in spite of the high ceiling. A half-dozen people seated ahead of Polly glanced up. Mme Meringue was wearing a forest-green hat that, to judge by its style, had been in her wardrobe for thirty years. Her dress was only barely more fashionable, and its pattern of large green Eiffel Towers on a beige background called attention to her built-for-comfort figure. She wasn’t an ugly woman, thought Polly. She could even look quite handsome, the way so many older French and Italian women did, if she dressed more stylishly.

Mme Meringue briefly consulted the paper in her hand and then resumed: “Fellow Pisans, I come to you as one who was once a stranger. But now I hold Pisa in my heart as my true home on earth—Pisa, the site of my worldly bliss and my field of action; Pisa, the city where I am called to aid my neighbors one and all. Will you not join me?” She glanced at her paper again. “Will you not enter the crusade? Yes, I dare call my mission a crusade. My crusade is no less than returning Pisa to the state of righteousness it knew in the days of San Ranieri and Santa Bona.”

“How does she know about the city then? She wasn’t here; I can tell you that,” an indignant Sofia whispered to Polly.

“Behold the elements aligned against return to our heritage of goodness. The extracomunitari threaten our legal merchants and frighten the tourists who bless our land. The Gypsies rob citizens and visitors alike and sully our Tuscany with their heathen. . . .”

Mme Meringue was interrupted by a booming, if girlish, voice that seemed to come from the ceiling: “Who are you to speak thus in the Lord’s dwelling! Identify yourself, termagant of evil!”

“Wow,” thought Polly. “That big voice of Sofia’s comes in handy.”

Mme Meringue’s own voice came out in a shriek: “Gabriel, is that you? Or is it you, Michael, archangel of God?”

“Repent, sinner, for you shall know my wrath!”

“I stand chastened before you,” she shouted, dropping awkwardly to her knees. “Lord, let your angel have mercy on me!”

By now the tourists and worshipers were hurrying toward the back of the church and the safety and sanity of the Corso Italia. Polly left with them. She was laughing, trying to do so quietly until she got outside, but then an uncomfortable feeling of sympathy for Mme Meringue made her continue on down the street, instead of waiting to hear more details from Sofia.

Polly paused in the Piazza Vittorio Emanuale II, in sight of the train station. The piazza, which had been named in honor of the first king of united Italy, was an oval of umbrella pines, flowers, grass, and pigeons that served as a traffic circle linking the main Pisan streets south of the Arno. Polly watched a pigeon pecking at part of a roll. She didn’t really want to go home and have to face her landlady.

“I know,” a familiar girl’s voice said to her. “I feel a little sorry for her, too. But you have to admit I was good.”

“I admit it. But did you have to scare her—not to mention the other people in the church?”

“It couldn’t be helped. I feel a lot sorrier for Flora and Charles than I do for your landlady. And wait until you hear our Minou sounding off about Mirella. Meet me at the bar after your school tomorrow.”

“Please. Don’t you ever say ‘please’?”

“Sorry—please. Anyway, I’ll see you there.”

Polly was suddenly aware of being alone. “Sofia?” she said, checking her perception, but there was no answer.

The River of Consciousness: A Shamanic Meditation

Pond at dusk

Rolling landscapes glide past my inner eye
As Hawk and Owl sit on my shoulders:
I long to hug them to me;
Heron flies ahead.

I swim in a buoyant pond of light;
Guidance comes:
“Tell shared histories,
Instead of the histories of one—
One person, one group, one way of being.”

All my beloveds on the other side
Gather in a dark woods;
I see their silhouettes and shadows
And greet each soul by name:
A welcoming community of love.
And then the heart of the gathering glows:
My mother and father, my everything.

I visit treasured souls still at home on Earth
And seek their healing according to their needs.

Consciousness becomes tangible;
I push and guide it with my open hands,
Sending it to loved ones present and beyond;
I savor the heft of creation’s consciousness
Against my palms that are helping it to flow
On and on,
Circling the Universe.

I request insight and intuition.
A woman of African ancestry appears;
She is my age, and her hair is short and white;
I wonder if she is a guide
And ask her to be a friend.

Namaste

A Lesson for Me

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Kentucky landscape

My reaction to the novel Calling Me Home,[1] by Julie Kibler, has reminded me that any efforts of mine to inspire change will certainly fail if I lack empathy for others’ circumstances, sensitivities, and feelings.

Calling Me Home is the story of a friendship between two women: Isabelle, who is white and close to ninety, and Dorrie, who is African American and in her thirties.  Dorrie has been styling Isabelle’s hair for years, and the two have become almost as close as mother and daughter.  For much of the book, Isabelle and Dorrie are on a road trip from their hometown in Texas to Cincinnati, where Isabelle will attend a funeral.  As the miles pass, the women share stories, and Isabelle talks about her girlhood in a northern-Kentucky town.  She tells of falling in love with and secretly marrying Robert, who was African American, and of the cruelty and suffering they endured.  In the course of their present-day travels, notably in Kentucky, Dorrie and Isabelle find disturbing evidence that racism continues in America.

I abhor racism.  I believe that we humans truly are all one, that we are tangibly linked through our shared consciousness, and that our differences should enrich our lives and relationships, rather than drive us apart.  I myself have dated interracially.  So you’d think that I’d love and applaud Calling Me Home, and in the second half of the book, I settled down and did so: I liked the central characters, felt empathy for their challenges, and properly directed my indignation toward the people and circumstances that had hurt Dorrie and Isabelle.  But during the first half of the book, I found myself feeling resentful, even angry, on my own behalf.  The reason is that I (maybe unfairly) saw the book as inclined to lump white southerners—especially Kentuckians—together in an undifferentiated racist pile.

When the message seems to be, “All you folks are like this,” the result is likely to be more offended feelings and resistance than understanding and change.  People who are angry or hurt are not receptive to new ways of seeing and doing.  Part way through Calling Me Home, I paused in my reading and left my apartment for some errands.  I felt so frustrated and out of sorts from reading the book that only with considerable effort could I reattach a smile and pleasant manner for greeting people in the halls of my building and in the stores.

I responded to the novel the way I did at least in part because my liberal and universally kind and loving mother grew up in Paint Lick, Kentucky, perhaps a hundred miles from the setting for Isabelle’s childhood.  My mother’s village was filled with good people of diverse ancestry.  I am not overlooking the fact that equality among the races was not complete in Paint Lick in the 1920s and 30s—the time of Isabelle’s and my mother’s growing up.  It still hadn’t been achieved anywhere in the country—including the North—when I was a girl, and it hasn’t been achieved now.  But I don’t recognize my mother or my Kentucky relatives in the portraits of the Kentuckians who made Isabelle’s girlhood so difficult and who unsettle Dorrie and Isabelle during their trip to Cincinnati.  Most of my Kentucky relatives may not share my liberal politics, but they are kind, caring people who treat others of all backgrounds with respect and equality.  My relatives do not deserve to be stereotyped, even for the sake of a novel with an important theme.  Perhaps I am unfair in my assessment of the book, but most of us are sensitive to perceived undeserved censure.

I have had somewhat similar, if less intense, reactions to other situations.  For instance, for many years, I heard that Baby Boomers are a spoiled, selfish generation.  Now wait a minute!  Perhaps some—or plenty of—truth can be found within the stereotype, but the majority of us Baby Boomers work hard to be decent, generous, caring individuals, however successful or unsuccessful we may be in reaching that goal.

Another relevant experience occurred about fifteen years ago, when George W. Bush was president of the United States.  I was not a big fan of President Bush.  Nevertheless, I bristled when a European friend e-mailed me that she wouldn’t come visit me because of her objection to the regulations for visitors that President Bush had put in place after the September 11 attacks.  What irked me was my friend’s comment: “I don’t think Americans realize how the rest of the world sees them and Bush.”  I was hurt that she viewed us Americans as a monolithic ill-informed mass.

My feelings of hurt prompted by such minor situations and by reading Calling Me Home are pebbles against the Mount Everest of suffering caused by racism, injustice, and inequality.  I came to Calling Me Home already agreeing with its premise that racism and bias continue to be a scourge in American society.  But if I hadn’t been in agreement, I probably wouldn’t have been won over by the novel.  Like many others, when I feel unfairly judged—or feel that those I love have been unfairly judged—I have trouble hearing any helpful accompanying messages.

I applaud Julie Kibler for speaking out through the medium of her book.  We have a strong duty to speak up on behalf of justice and wellbeing for all.  But the question of how best to inspire others to be kind, inclusive, and egalitarian is complex.  If we see one another as multifaceted beings with a rich blend of both beneficial and unfortunate qualities—rather than as creatures defined by a single characteristic—we will be less inclined to fall into prejudice and stereotyping in the name of standing up for our beliefs.

[1] Julie Kibler, Calling Me Home (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013).

Seeking

Wilm. Meetinghouse, pencil
Wilmington (De.) Meetinghouse, pencil sketch by Mason Hayek

We gather near evening to honor two-hundred years
Of Quaker worship in our Meetinghouse,
Two-hundred years of listening within these walls,
Of waiting on the Lord,
For That-of-God-Within to speak
And to urge speaking,
Two-hundred years
Of First Days[1]
On the handsome, uncomfortable benches
On the simple and beautiful wooden floor,
Of seeking spiritual gathering
Bringing each within.

I know little of the Quakers two centuries past,
Only their stories told in First Day School
And the fact of men and women dividing
In early Meetings for Business:
Desiring equality without men’s domination;
Otherwise the history accompanying me at sunset
Is the history I lived.

As dusk nears
I return to childhood within these walls;
I hear the ministry of Weighty Friends,
Their timbre and cadence,
The “thee” and “thou” a few still spoke,
The names now heard as forebears.

We children sang before Meeting for Worship,
And after, all sang together:
“As we leave this friendly place,
Love give light to every face.”[2]
I loved the singing more than silence.
We rarely sing now.

In the peaceful twilight
I see my parents
As my father clerks our Meeting for Business,
As my mother’s ministry radiates that of God within,
As we three worship on the bench we always chose.

I slip into the years
When children came to our home
To create treasures to sell
At the fair held each November;
And then I was Mary or an angel in the Christmas play;
On Easter, we children gave everyone pansies;
In First Day School
We formed salt maps of the Holy Land;
Our Bibles were presented when we were nine—
I chose the King James Version—
Faith and Practice[3] was a gift for high-school graduation.

Today’s children in our Meeting
Have their own traditions,
But few of them are mine,
And the adults’ traditions
Are—for me—loosely fitting,
Often unfamiliar.

Around me in the darkening Meetinghouse,
I see Friends who are friends
And others who are strangers;
How uncomfortable
That mine is the older generation now;
My peers serve the congregation and our neighbors,
But I do not:
My life is elsewhere;
The Meeting kindly welcomed me,
Returning after time and alienation,
But I remain a ghost from another era.

[1] Quakers traditionally refer to Sunday as “First Day.”

[2] “As We Leave This Friendly Place,” lyrics by Vincent B. Silliman, 1935.

[3] Faith and Practice is a book containing Quaker principles and queries for contemplation.

The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 7

Flora’s Home

Polly checked her watch but saw she had time before cena. No doubt Mme Meringue would like for her to be at home more, but Polly wasn’t about to miss out on opportunities for meeting with her new friends or seeing more of Pisa.

Flora kept up a steady flow of commentary as they walked. “I love our apartment. Mamma speaks beautifully and likes to play around by putting on airs like a rich lady. When she gets all dressed up and goes into her act, she can make Mme Meringue and all her phony airs look downright cheap—but they do anyway, in my opinion.

“Anyway, mamma did what she calls her ‘exception to the rule’ and wore regular, non-Gypsy clothes when she went to see about renting the apartment. The landlord probably wondered why such an upper-crust woman would be interested in such a modest place, but mamma can charm anyone when she wants to. The landlord wasn’t a bit happy when he found out the sweet lady and her little family are Gypsies.

“He came banging on our door during cena one evening and demanded to be let in—or he’d use his passkey and come in anyway. Someone had told him what we are. But then when he saw us all at dinner in the dining room, just like some perfect television family, he didn’t know what to say for a moment. So he just said, ‘Gypsies!’

“‘Yes?’ said mamma and papà together.

“‘You didn’t tell me you’re Gypsies!’

“‘You didn’t ask,’ mamma said sweetly. ‘I told you our income and paid you two months’ rent in advance. Did you ask my husband’s employers for a reference?’ She knew he hadn’t, not after he’d had a dose of her charm.

“‘Who ever heard of a Gypsy with a real job?’ he said, not answering her question. If he hadn’t been so smitten with mamma’s pretty face and had checked papà’s reference, he’d have learned papà is a seasonal worker. But we pay our rent on time. Mamma even told the landlord our real income—that is, at least our potential when everything pans out as we hope and the tourists are feeling generous.”

Flora stopped in front of a battered wooden door next to a clothing store and pulled it open with a firm yank. Inside she flicked on a light to illuminate a dark stairway and then slammed the outside door behind them. At the top of the stairs, Flora took a key out of a pocket in her skirt, unlocked and opened the shiny yellow door, and invited Polly inside.

The apartment sparkled with colorful fabrics. Decorative objects and art filled the surfaces and walls. The front window was almost as large as a storefront, but white lace curtains softened the effect.

Flora turned toward Polly. “This apartment is much nicer than the trailer we used to have in the old camp. Look at what a great view we’ve got from here. I like to watch people walking up and down the street—so much variety. It’s so interesting to see the regulars day after day and spot the newcomers and tourists—see that family over there looking at a map? I’ll bet you they’re trying to figure out how to get to the Leaning Tower.”

“Isn’t everyone?” asked Sofia. Even before Sofia had spoken, Polly had had no doubt she was with them. The air felt different when Sofia was around—more exciting somehow.

Flora and Polly, and perhaps Sofia, too, settled into soft, comfortable chairs in the living room. A well-worn sofa that would be perfect for napping or reading sat under the big front window, and a spinet piano stood on the side wall. Just beyond the living room was a dining room filled with rustic but pleasing furniture, and through an archway, Polly could see a blue and yellow kitchen.

“It really is pretty in here,” contributed Sofia. “My favorites are the lace curtains and the dining-room furniture, especially that china closet.” She explained to Polly, “It’s been in their family for years and years. It once belonged to Flora’s great-grandparents—her bisnonno made it himself! He was and is a great guy; I see him from time to time. Most folks like me don’t hang around with folks like you as much as I do. But he keeps up with how Flora and her family are doing. Everything in this apartment squeaks in such a homey way—all the furniture and even the floor. Did you notice Flora’s great-grandmother’s clock over there by the piano?” There was no way Polly could have missed its loud “tick, tock.” Sofia’s commentary continued: “This place is like an orchestra of cheerful noises. I like to go to the symphony, so I know what I’m talking about.”

“Yeah,” said Flora, “I went with her once. She hums along! The people around us thought I was doing it and kept giving me dirty looks.”

“That’s what they get for letting in a Gypsy,” Sofia teased. “As I was saying, I love to visit here, but I can’t just show up any old time and start talking because Flora’s father doesn’t approve of me; her mother and little brothers like me okay, though. Her father doesn’t think it’s safe to be talking to spirits. Me dangerous, can you believe it?”

“Calm down, Sofia. My father has too much on his mind to be sensible all the time. It makes me sad when my parents have to work long hours doing things they don’t really like. My papà is a wonderful artist—that’s his painting of a horse over the table in the corner, and he did the little Gypsy violinist over the piano. Plus papà loves to read about all sorts of things, but he has to spend his days pounding nails. It’s not that he has anything to be ashamed about as far as his work—or anything—is concerned. It’s just that it’s not the right work for him, and it’s not steady, either. But when he’s not working, he feels so bad about not earning money for us, he doesn’t want to touch his art or even his books.

Mamma throws herself into her flower selling and songs, acting the wild Gypsy all the way, but at home she’s proper and quiet. I think she’d really like to be the classy lady our landlord first took her to be. She is a classy lady through and through, but she hardly ever gets to show that side of herself in public.

“But as both my parents say, we have a lot to be thankful for. I can’t wait for you to meet my family, Polly. Mamma and papà are working today, and my little brothers are with our nonna. I know you’ll just love them all when you get to know them. They’ll like you, too.”

“Have you seen Charles today?” asked Sofia, changing the subject.

“Not once. I haven’t seen any of the guys.”

Sofia said to Polly, “You met Charles at Mme Meringue’s when you moved in. Sorry to bring up a sore subject, but you’ll recall that I was watching.”

“Yes, I remember—both Charles and your watching.” She realized Charles was the third Pisan—along with Mirella and Flora—Sofia had in mind to help. “Charles seemed nice, but he didn’t say much. Of course, I don’t always say much around Mme Meringue either. I saw him near the bar yesterday after I left school.”

“Charles is one of my favorite friends,” Flora said with enthusiasm. “He’s from Nigeria. He’s only fourteen and is living all by himself here in Pisa. Since he’s tall and looks a little older, he tells everyone he’s eighteen—that’s what Mme Meringue thinks—but he told Sofia and me the truth because we’re friends and trust each other. His father is in Italy, too, but in Rome because that way, they figure, they won’t be competing against each other in selling their baskets and carvings.

“Probably if you come to the bar—the one where we met—tomorrow after your class, you can get to talk to Charles. The sidewalk merchants are usually all there around that time—when Mme Meringue isn’t making trouble, that is.”

“What does she do?”

“You’ll see soon enough,” Sofia said dismissively. “Plan on being at the bar the way Flora said.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Polly gave a salute. She glanced down at her watch and was startled to see it was nearly 6:30. “I’d better get going. Mme Meringue will not be thrilled if I’m late.”

“My papà may be getting home soon—I wish you could meet him. But you’d better get going, too, Sofia, because I don’t trust you to keep quiet when he’s around.”

“No sooner said than done,” said Sofia rather haughtily, and immediately the air lost its extra shimmer.

“See you tomorrow, Polly. Can you slam the door at the bottom of the stairs? It sticks.”