NO MAN IS AN ISLAND
We sent the letter below to our authors inviting them to share their thoughts and sentiments on the unthinkable times we are experiencing.
To overcome lies in the heart, in the streets, in the books
from the lullabies of the mothers
to the news report that the speaker reads,
understanding, my love, what a great joy it is,
to understand what is gone and what is on the way.
A few days ago, I stumbled across a gorgeous poem that could not be more pertinent today. Yet, it was written by the deceased Turkish dissident and writer Nazim Hikmet a hundred years ago, during his imprisonment:
We are all suffering in these days, but no one is more capable than a writer of transforming these emotions into words, paragraphs, pages; and we have never been so needy. The entire world is focused on Italy which is, unfortunately, at the forefront of this global emergency. Let’s offer a taste of the extraordinary talent that I have the privilege to represent.
- Attilio Attilieni
- Lorenzo Beccati
- Sara Benatti
- Mattia Bertoldi
- Dario Buzzolan
- Alfio Caruso
- Romina Casagrande
- Viola Di Grado
- Daniela Fedi
- Chiara Francini
- Diego Galdino
- Lorenza Gentile
- Chiara Giunta
- Alessandro Golinelli
- Evita Greco
- Maria Giovanna Luini
- Marina Mander
- Christian Mascheroni
- Anna Martellato
- Silvio Muccino
- Enzo Maria Napolillo
- Valentina Orengo
- Massimilano Palmese
- Carmen Pellegrino
- Cinzia Pennati
- Paola Peretti
- Marta Perego
- Vladimiro Polchi
- Rosella Postorino
- Giulia Rossi
- Sarah Savioli
- Roberta Schira
- Susanna Tamaro
- Luca Tarenzi
- Francesca Tassini
- Simone Tempia
- Carla Vangelista
- Andrea Vianello
- Giovanna Vivinetto
These last few weeks have led us to a huge discovery: you can live without working.
We spend our days in a blissful state, chasing butterflies and picking spring-scented flowers in the fields, heaven on earth rediscovered, far from the walls in which we are not imprisoned.
And if someone were to ask us: What about doing something? We answer, with a complacent smile: No thank you; better not to make plans.
If someone else insists: Don’t you think it’s time to roll up your sleeves? We answer: Brother, can’t you see that Mother Nature is already offering us everything we need to survive? And if she fails, someone else will take over, and refill our bank accounts.
What a wonderful feeling to return to nature.
And if the Talking Cricket, left by Pinocchio, shows up and murmurs: Are you sure? Won’t the bill arrive sooner or later?
We answer: but no! Can’t you see? You can live without working!
Today: 259 casualties
Today: 523 casualties
Today: 727 casualties
I wish they were not all communed in a common grave.
I wish their names were read,
One by one…one after the other
THE COLORS ARE STILL HERE
I bought a beautiful pair of jeans for springtime. I bought them online, like I do all the time—miracles of the modern age. They showed up at my place on a sunny afternoon. I tried them on, loved them. A bit faded, with a seventies hippie style and embroidered flowers from the knees down. Fantastic, I thought. A great excuse to go out for a gelato. I’d almost reached the door before stopping in my tracks.
Because this year I haven’t had my first gelato yet, strolling beneath the wisteria on the lakeshore where I live. And I can see the inviting sunshine only from the window as I look out onto one of those picturesque little squares that Italian towns love to boast—a little square now empty and silent. Only a month ago all this would have been unfathomable: an entire country at a standstill, deserted streets everywhere, not to mention all the other nations undergoing something similar. There was the initial shock, the one that had me wandering the house in pure cabin fever with the urge to kick the walls down because I couldn’t breathe. There was the anxiety that kept me from concentrating and made me spend my evenings chasing down news from the national press agency and the contradictory articles by experts who’d inevitably been caught off-guard by the unexpected, unprecedented circumstances. There was a lot of hard work, trying to avoid giving in to this surge, made even more insidious because it all hinges on the worst feeling of all: helplessness.
Or maybe not. Maybe there’s an even worse feeling: fear, which performs its dance every day now in homes as well as on social media, in the papers and on TV. Fear, which brings out the worst in everyone: from those who exploit it to attract a few extra clicks by rambling on about unruly crowds of plague-spreaders invading the cities in defiance of the law, to newbie vigilantes who shriek from their windows at those who dare pass by on the street—maybe only to go to the pharmacy; from those desperate to find scapegoats at all costs to those who wallow in catastrophe theories, envisioning bleak scenarios of seclusion that last months and months.
I must admit that it was, above all, the vitriol of those who tried to paint everything black that made me want to unplug from the Internet and cut even that last connection with the rest of the world. Not out of spite, but because on certain days, at certain times—and I’m sure we’ve all had them—it’s really hard not to founder, and the weight of the insults, of the apocalyptic proclamations, of the pure and simple pessimism oozing from the poorly concealed satisfaction of the words “I told you so!” was just too much to bear.
But then I also started to notice the flickering candles—many, so many of them—lit by all those trying hard to mitigate the gloom. And I’m not talking only about the commitment of the doctors, of the researchers, of all those out there who are actively working to let us go back to real life. I’m talking about all those who use their ingenuity every day to offer the world a distraction or a smile—those who offer video lessons and brief courses about all sorts of topics, those who come up with stories or comics or shoot funny photographs in a nutty, irresistible pandemic narrative; those who track down online games to bring together groups of distant friends on Skype, those who dance at a distance on Saturday nights thanks to virtual parties, those who share tea and cake every day in videos with relatives and loved ones. Sure, during these weeks we’ve seen tragedies, indifference, vitriol; but much, much more than that I’ve seen the tightening of bonds with true friends, the outstretched hands, the spontaneously offered words of comfort, the smiles and laughter while awaiting the chance to dance in the same room again, to share a real hug. We’ve all had moments of despair, there’s no denying it. But neither I nor the people I love nor my friends nor my acquaintances have ever been really alone, no matter how physically distant we’ve been, and whenever someone wavered, others held them up.
There are going to be good days and bad days, but our reaction is what’s going to really show who we are—that’s what one of these friends told me earlier this week. And the reactions I’ve seen have warmed my heart. They’ve made me thank heaven for the much-criticized social media, for the wonders of the Internet. They’ve made me hope, given me strength.
I don’t know how long this situation is going to last, but I know that the day they open up the gelaterias again I’m going to wear my new jeans embroidered with flowers. I’m going to enjoy a gelato in the springtime sunshine along with the people dearest to me. I’m going to see all the colors that the gloom, pessimism and vitriol haven’t wiped away. And I’m not going to forget—not the sacrifices of those who worked to defeat the virus, nor the affection, smiles and warmth that people have shown they’re capable of. A light so powerful it was shining everywhere, even in the rooms into which we’d withdrawn.
Translated by Leah Janeczko
So far, and yet so close, distant and yet united, together we will get through this. The concept of space has never been such an urgent issue for politicians, scientists and slogans. How can we show others our support and nourish relationships? What truly unites us?
Authors are particularly interested in those questions. In his book On Writing, Stephen King claims that writing is “the quintessence of telepathy” because the mental process of transmission and reception takes place between writer and reader and transcends space and time. In short, the writer has a very specific responsibility: to convey emotion to the reader to the best of his or her capacity.
Many have felt the urge to read and write during these days of self-quarantine. People have become receptive, searching for messages and meaning. In words, they have found the help they sought and the strength to face these difficult moments. It is a confirmation and these days have provided a reason to persist in our commitment.
They say that everything- habits, ideas, attitudes- will change once the Coronavirus has passed. Writers will be called upon to tune in to the frequencies of a new society, to acknowledge the (emerging) fragility of humans in the XXI century, and to adjust in this different context.
And then we will be called upon to write, again. Because this is the only tool that allows us to make contact with our readers despite and beyond limitations, difficulties and distances dictated by space and time. Writing will continue to provoke emotions and this, I am sure, is what many are comforted by while they count the hours, days and weeks.
When all this is over: The experts were cautious (as experts always are), but it seemed over. Somebody even used the definitive verb, it is over, tacking on a superstitious “hopefully”, and a pious “God willing” and a sincere “it’s about time”.
But it seemed over, truly over. We had been locked home for months, besieged by a tiny parasite made of protein molecules: three perched together for armor and a fourth full of RNA. Entering your body, the parasite pasted its genome to yours and began duplicated itself. An ugly beast indeed.
Many died, many suffered and many were afraid. Others simply waited. People locked up with children, wives, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, dogs, cats, canaries and goldfish (or fish of other sorts). Some willingly, others indifferent and many desperate. Relationships strengthened, or were pulverized. Some went mad and others found themselves. There were those who cut out paper dolls, for their children or for themselves, cooked hundreds of different recipes and ate until they doubled their weight. They sewed improbable clothes, wrote memoirs (some passionate, others unexceptional), took photos from their balconies, listened to music, cleaned house, spoke to far away friends or total strangers, made love real or virtual, took drugs, read books, saw worthy and worthless films again and again. Some washed their hands regularly, even maniacally. Others stopped doing it altogether.
What Lucio did, I cannot say. In all those days of isolation, we never spoke. We never wrote to each other; we had no contact except visual. Every day at 12pm and 8pm, he appeared at his window and stared below, one hand resting on the glass and the other in front of his mouth, immersed in profound thought. Then he would lift his hand from the glass and greet me with a slight smile. Oh God, it seemed like a smile but I couldn’t be sure at a distance. Let’s just say I wanted it to be one.
Lucio and I hardly knew each other. He was my garage neighbor and once a year we met at the condominium meeting for garage owners where we discussed garage issues like malfunctioning shutters, infiltration, remote controls and columns damaged by clumsy parkers. I recognized in him my own sovereign and caustic disinterest because every time he took the floor to speak up, I agreed with him. And vice versa. If the unthinkable hadn’t happened and we hadn’t been forced to quarantine for so long, we probably would have gone out for a coffee or even a beer and become friends after one of those meetings. Or something like it. But since that was not possible, we acknowledged each other from a distance and with a greeting of a nod.
Then it was over. Experts were cautious, but they prudently declared that the parasite had been defeated, and that finally, we could go out, which is what happened: everyone finally went out. They amassed in the streets without purpose or goals, just like that, for the pure joy of being outside. I did too. I met friends and girlfriends, people I had never seen or known of all ages. I embraced as many people as I could. I also kissed a few, randomly. A girl, on the corner of her charmingly drawn lips. Humans beings flowed like the waters of an overflowing river. They ate and sang and ran and played and touched and chased each other on the street, between cars parked and those moving, which had already turned into a traffic jam. Store shutters opened all together and goods were dusted and displayed, illuminated, offered, bought and sold. Everything started up again, factories and offices, porters, markets, shops, gyms and hairdressers. The corner beauticians began to cut and polish hands and feet, placing a chair on the sidewalk outside, with a sign that read: Free Manicure and Pedicure.
I walked through the crowd and breathed, laughed, tasted the joy of newfound freedom, even through the narrow winding streets near my home. And then I found myself beneath Lucio’s house, and I instinctively looked up. He was there, leaning upon the glass of the window, with one hand resting on the sill and the other in front of his face, like always. I took a few steps back, to be in his field of vision, and I waved my arms. He merely greeted me with a nod, just as he had during our days of quarantine, at which I lost my temper and buzzed his apartment. I had to press it at least three or four times before he answered. “Who is it?” he answered, his voice distorted.
“Who do you think?” I answered, a bit irritated. “I am here below.”
“Yes, Yes. I saw you.”
“You aren’t coming out?”
“No, thank you.”
“What do you mean, No thank you? Come for a walk, get some air.”
“Really, I prefer not to.”
“Come for a coffee, a beer?”
For a minute, I was simply mute, paralyzed. I didn’t know what to say, but then I answered, “But why not?”
No answer. I rang again, but he did not pick up.
Disappointed, I was left to walk through the crowds in a state of confusion. That evening I drank quite a bit, until the thought of Lucio, with his face pressed to the window and his garbled voice, disappeared. It was over and time to celebrate. Be happy. But the next morning I found myself once again below his apartment and he was there as usual, on the other side of the window. Again, I waved my arms and he repeated his unbearable greeting. At that, I raised my fist to the air in pure anger and turned my back to him. After a few steps, I heard the window open and his voice calling my name. I stopped and turned around.
“What are you still doing there?” I asked.
“I am trying to understand,” he said.
A long silence followed. I tried to grasp his words which echoed in my head, to ponder them because I wasn’t sure I heard or understood correctly.
“Understand what?” I asked.
“Understand what it is like. Out there.”
Another wave of my fist, but this time less emphatic.
“You know what it is like outside! It is beautiful. Come on down!”
“No, no” he said, cautiously. “ I’ll wait just a little longer.”
“Wait for what? What are you trying to understand?”
He shrugged and opened his arms slightly, as though it were obvious.
“If it’s just like before,” he said softly.
I also shrugged; but then I added “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Because if it is just like before,” he answered, looking past me, “ then why would I go outside? I already know what it’s like and I’m not interested.”
“But Lucio…” I managed before realizing that I had no idea what else to say.
He remained unfazed ,in fact.
He closed the window in slow motion. And a split second before it snapped shut, he said “Give me time, just a little.” Then he disappeared into his living room.
That was the last time I ever saw him.
Italians have a relatively low consideration of themselves. We need to hit rock bottom before we allow our most noble side to emerge. And therefore, we are in no position to dispense advice. Never before, like in these weeks, has the planet appeared to be so little, so vulnerable, so fragile. Is there still time to protect it? Or will egoism, opportunism and apathy prevail?
Sometimes an author’s task is to become a jar, an urn, to collect stories and turn them into wind. This is the story about a mother and her child. About Monica, a brave mother, and Lorenzo, a child who wants to be a goalie when he grows up, and who’s afflicted by a rare respiratory illness. About his operations, which devastated his aorta, about his medical exams and all the waiting.
Isolated from the world, for years Monica and Lorenzo have been fighting their silent battle. The coronavirus has thrown their lives into even more turmoil, because now Lorenzo can’t be treated. The illness attacks his lungs, steals time from him. He’s one of the “most fragile” people, the ones the virus would crush. The ones people think about when they read the paper or hear the numbers and say, “That can’t happen to me.” In that number, among that number, lies Lorenzo’s whole life, and his mother’s. There lie the questions. “Mamma, if I die will you stay close to me?” And there lies Monica’s art, her hands searching for the fear in order to capture it on the canvas, mixing it with colors and shapes. Hands that heal.
Inside Pandora’s box, uncovered by the curiosity and arrogance of men, remains a tiny spirit: Hope. But Hope too is a demon, one of the evils left free to sweep over the world if not kept under control, and it brings deception. There can be no real hope without our action. It takes very little. All it takes is the understanding that we’re creatures that are interconnected, connected with each other, with nature, with the sky and with the earth. No man is an island, no man is a number. Let’s protect ourselves, protect those we love and even those we don’t know. Let’s make it so that isolation isn’t a solitude of hearts. Let’s give hope a face, hands, a color. Let’s give it our courage.
Translated by Leah Janeczko
With thanks to Lorenzo and Monica Pizzo
Painting: “La follia” by Monica Pizzo
Viola Di Grado
I don’t have brothers, but I grew up with four cousins whom I love very much. Three of them are doctors and one of them, my favorite, contracted Coronavirus two weeks ago. He was hospitalized and put into a C-pap, which is a sort of helmet for positive pressure mechanical respiration. If that doesn’t work, the patient is provided with endotracheal intubation. Luckily it worked. His experience was horrific, days spent under the influence of a fever, with aches and pains and a sense of suffocation. When he finally began to feel better, he began sending me messages: Last week, I received one, that made me happy: “Ciao. If you don’t mind, write me about your day or memories, whatever you want. Reading what you write is a joy.” So this is the first of many messages that I wrote to him on What’sApp.
Tonight, I am writing about our Uncle Bepi, Nonna Lina’s brother. He was big and tall, a hulk. During the First World War, a donkey thought it best to kick him as he was climbing a mountain with a load of weapons for his garrison. Uncle Bepi turned around and punched him on his head, knocking him out. Somehow, this episode ended up illustrated by Walter Molino, on the cover of the Corriere’s newspaper supplement called La Domenica. You cannot imagine how hard I searched for it in the archives of the Rizzoli building… Nonna then told me that after the defeat of Caporetto, her brother returned to his home, which he found occupied by a garrison of Austrians. To avoid being killed by them, he pretended to be crazy. He climbed the large oak tree at the entrance of the villa and yelled in German: “Was für ein wunderschöner Vogel wäre ich” (what a beautiful bird I am) and then in Venetian “Oh che bel osel che sai mia” at the top of his lungs. He spent his day pretending to be mad, for the Austrians, and his nights sleeping in his own bed. Two days after the departure of the defeated Austrians, he caught the Spanish flu and healed as brilliantly as you are healing now.
The Spanish flu began in 1918 in the trenches of the Great War and ended in 1920. It came to infect 500 million people in the world, causing between 50-100 million deaths globally. In Italy, it spread from Sossano, outside of Vicenzo, not far from our grandmother’s house in Tezze di Piave. In two years, it killed 600,000 Italians. To date, the Coronavirus has officially caused 15,362 deaths in this Bel Pease that is Italy.
Homo genus, without the sapiens is just a man lacking memory.
They say that pain is darkness, but it is just the opposite.
Pain is the sibling of light. And like light, it is composed of millions of shards of broken glass that revive and reflect the sun’s varied spectrum in brilliant reciprocity.
Pain is this: a holding basket of incandescent glass splinters which hurt and make you bleed when removed. But it is the only way to release. Then again all cuts heal and pain dims and its memory fades.
And it becomes something else. It becomes darkness.
Homo genus with memory is a human being.
Yesterday, I left my home to go food shopping, one of the very few justifications to be outdoors. On my way back, I made a detour to visit my daughters. I hadn’t seen them for days, since they live with their mother (I am divorced) . I couldn’t help myself. I miss them a lot and although the desire to hug them was immense, I practiced social distancing. For five long minutes, we stared at each other from the doorway to the sidewalk, smiling with our eyes, the kind that allow you to communicate with a mask covering your face. No one is doing well right now. Then I raised my hand to say goodbye and left. I am scared. Sometimes, during the day, I cry secretly, so my wife won’t hear me. I pray that God will protect my daughters for me since He can be with them all the time. He is God and I am a mere human being I am not afraid of this illness, of dying. What I am afraid of is that this illness will change us forever. Not for the better, as everyone says, but for the worse. It will condition us much in the same way as it might a young child who no longer touches the stove after being burnt. Will we be afraid to hug? Will we continue to self-isolate? Will we live like cowboys on the Wild West, enclosed in a ranch and fearful of what lies on the other side of the fence. But fear is also good; it helps you stay focused, which allows you to avoid mistakes. It also makes you pay attention to details, fundamental in winning the war against what is causing this illness. Because ultimately, we will have to win. Because nobody can keep my daughters as far away from me as the landing.
March 21st, 2020
It’s snowing. It’s the second day of spring, the twentieth of quarantine. I think. Keeping track of the days is really hard. The superstitious believe this is all happening because it’s a leap year. Keeping track of the days is really hard because they’re a lot alike. Not that the ones before this weren’t a lot alike. But now they’re even more alike. If before they bore a vague resemblance, like brothers, now they’re identical twins. The kind who, unless you see them side by side and one of them at least has a tic, you can’t tell apart.
On days like these, what saves you is routine. I got into cooking. If you’d told me, You’re going to get into cooking I would’ve replied, Impossible. And yet (Lazarus, rise up and walk!) I got into cooking.
It’s snowing out and my husband and I crimp together ravioli, one by one, a huge pile of ravioli, because there are seven of us in quarantine together, an extended family like back during the war.
And just like back during the war, people outside go to the other world. By the hundreds. When I think about it my chest burns, I get a cough. A dry cough. They say it’s psychosomatic, it’s my need to share their misery. Or prepare for the worst. Is this how it feels? Will it happen to me too?
How long will it last? Will we go back through time and try out all the dishes on the family tree? Will we get to the sauce of anchovies and fish guts the ancient Romans made? Will we go back to making our own bread and hunting? To milking cows? Will we end up baking panettone all on our own? If that’s the case, give us yeast. In Australia they get into fistfights over rolls of toilet paper, in England they’ve run out of long-life milk, in Italy yeast for pizza dough is sold out. Pretty soon, with some sourdough you’ll be able to buy yourself a house. Throw in a bottle of hand sanitizer and they’ll give you a swimming pool with it.
For the first time, we of Generations X and Y have stopped deluding ourselves that time is a fluid, continuous, interminable moment, that life is all just comfort and happiness.
I’m waiting. I’ve been waiting for a month. What am I waiting for? For someone to come up and tell me, You really fell for it? None of it’s true! It’s not true about Bergamo, or about Brescia. People aren’t swarming into hospitals. Your beloved Milan is exactly like it was before. I’m waiting for someone to tell me it’s all like it was before, because I know it never will be again.
I miss the little things. Hugging my grandmother without being scared I’ll hurt her, seeing my friends in flesh and blood again, taking flowers when going to someone’s home for dinner.
How did the war end? That’s the only thought that keeps me going on these tired days: with a big party. The war was long and painful, but that’s how it ended. They celebrated until dawn. Why should this be any different?
It seemed like our problem, but it’s the whole world’s. What virus is stopped by borders? The problem is the planet. The planet is what we need to cure. It lacks oxygen, it needs space and silence and time and days as alike as twins. The real war lies in defending it.
It shouldn’t snow in spring. We shouldn’t catch the flu from bats. We shouldn’t get into brawls over toilet paper, but hold each other tight whenever we see each other, like before. All this makes me think: the poor mammoths went extinct, but given that we have all the means we need, can’t we do a little better?
Translated by Leah Janeczko
Never like in these days has the power of thought manifested itself. Inhibited in our actions, frightened and confused, we’ve discovered that time and space no longer belong to us. We’ve consciously surrendered many of our constitutional freedoms, but not our freedom of thought.
Around me I see homes brimming with dreams, with memories, with hope, but also with regrets, with nostalgia, with the incredible perception of having lost a world that dissolved before our eyes.
Yet thought soars freely over the constraints and prisons of reality. It imagines the future, plans a new life, develops a new sociability, races swiftly down the avenues of the impossible.
Who we’re going to be and who we’re going to want to be will be the result conceived by our minds in the months we spend pondering the true value of feelings and relationships, a collective thought that will take shape in actions when we have the opportunity to act.
Translated by Leah Janeczko
Milan is silent, clean and shimmery, under the sunshine of these cool, clear days. Empty are its sumptuous squares, its tree-lined avenues, theaters, cinemas, museums, gyms and thousands of stores, restaurants, clubs and offices housed in glass towers or luxurious buildings adorned with lime plaster ceilings and fishbone parquet floors. But crowded are its homes, as before they were occupied only at night.
The silence is broken by the doppler effect of a sporadic car or bus, by the squeaking of an African bike rider or by one of a dozen languages spoken by a solitary stroller into a mobile phone. In the city, there are no tormenting church bells that ring to death like in the valleys of Lombardy.
If I do go outside, the long lines at the supermarket are increasingly sad and silent. Even among friends one is weary of talking about the virus, nauseated by the contradicting news; there is nothing more to say in the emotional paralysis of our identical, flat days of reclusion. We call each other less than we did when animated by the alarming news, thinking this would only be temporary, when we organized singing and applause from the windows or balcony. When we made plans to meet later. When there was no concern about whether our savings would suffice.
Because we begin to count the days, gnawed by the doubt that they may never pass. Surprised, stunned to find ourselves hoping to survive, having to trust that there will be a place in the reanimation ward, while Facebook knows we are searching for a new couch and we speak on a telephone that did exist only in sci-fiction twenty years ago. With each week that passes the fear grows that, in phase two, we may be resigned to living either with death or misery and despair. Suddenly, it becomes clear that our lives have a price tag and are not free, as we believed in recent years. There is no right to life but a struggle for it; such is nature.
I wish I could write a less bitter and cruel words. I could describe the courage of many workers or the sustained solidarity in Milan. That we may continue to feel this fraternity even after and we will finally break down confines to allow our planet to have a single governance. But I would then have to refrain from expressing myself on the hate mongers and those who break laws on quarantine, on the global leadership that is unprepared, authoritarian and fraudulent, and we who have rewarded the worst of us rather than the best of us with money, fame and power. Or on revolting political looters.
But this is all in front of your eyes, so you don’t need mine. I can only tell you what I see when I close my eyelids: the pebble beach of my childhood where I return every summer and will find again in August to be as wonderful as ever.
When I was a child, my family and I spent the summers at a beach just a few kilometers from home, wedged between the railroad tracks and a refinery. The water level near the shore was so low that you could barely dunk, but we as children didn’t care, or even better: the sea is whatever you know it to be and for us, that was it.
My sister and I invented a game. We dunked and pressed our foreheads against each other. One of us would mouth a word or a short sentence, and the other had to guess what it was. We would stay under water until one of us needed to breath, or the other guessed the word. The first round was easy because, for some reason, we always chose simple words or silly phrases. The next round, we repeated the game, but putting more space between us, placing both hands in front of our noses to measure the distance: a word or sentence spoken underwater until we needed air or found the word. At that point, we would sometimes find ourselves yelling. When you yell though, you never make yourself better heard. And under water, the effect is even worse: the words come out distorted, more complicated to understand. We yelled because the yelling at that distance and through water made it festive. Then we separated further. With our hands on each other’s elbows, we started the third round. We took long breaths and looked in each other’s eyes before speaking, saving our breath, trying to listen, head up for air and then down again until we guessed the word.
On the fourth round, we held hands, but at an arm’s length away. At that point, and I don’t know why, the words became more complicated, the sentences truer. It was as though distance allowed us to protect what we were saying. We never yelled at this stage of the game, and now I think I know the sound of yelling in water. In any case, often we never got to understand the real words said, meaning that neither of us were able to guess what the other had said. The sequence was the same: long inhalation, eye meeting, head under water, words spoken, words spoken again until we were out of breath. We didn’t easily give in, but sometimes it happened. Sometimes the words got lost, especially the truer ones, those we told each other when the sea determined the distance. But sometimes, suddenly, even after the game was over and we were playing something else, or maybe on the way home, the words would suddenly make sense. Even when that did not happen and the words remained a mystery we would look at each other and understand the meaning of what was said under water. The meaningful word, the truest sentence.
I feel now like I did when I used to play that game. I look in people’s eyes, from afar, take long breaths and keep my distance.
And I know that when this is all over and we step out of the water or the beach or even further along, on the road home, we may not understand what was said through the water. Something will be lost and maybe even all this distance will be lost. But we will know for sure what we chose to say, the truest sentence, that which belongs to us and to which we belong. That which we chose to confess and entrust to the sea at a measured distance that is not too far away.
Maria Giovanna Luini
FLOW TO EXIST
Sometimes I wonder how long this will last and then I stop myself. Time Is not the point, it never is. To live outside the illusory prison of time is to grasp symbols, to access different and extraordinary levels of equilibrium. We need this and we must now connect with the chaotic reality that we embody. Chaos, an unstable system containing unlimited potential. This is the only way that our roots can expand. Potential is not fulfilled by ordered stability which allows us to feel protected. It is created thanks to a disequilibrium which removes all sense of comfort. We change to survive. Watching the four walls that appear to protect us in the hopes that we can return to our lives as they were is to halt, resist, force the body and psyche to struggle against the only form of healing which is movement, unconstrained flow. We have today and we will have tomorrow. We have an interior flame and whatever capacities we have acquired so far. Above all, we are capable of transformation. Let’s allow it to happen. We are not prisoners and we are not at war. We are simply driven to evolve faster than we expected.
GO BACK. WE FUCKED UP EVERYTHING.
Two months ago, or a little more, I was sitting and drinking tea in Jane Goodall’s house in Gombe. Gombe is a small national park in Tanzania, a patch of national forest along Lake Tanganika which became famous thanks to Jane Goodall and her studies on chimpanzees (pan troglodytes) in the early 1960’s. Thanks to her, we now know many things, some good, others less so, about our distant cousins.
Jane’s house is hidden beneath the mango trees, but there is a lake in front of it, with clear waters, fish that brush by you with liquid strokes, monkeys play and bicker, love and fight, on the branches. They are baboons, or a blue monkey, a rare red colobus, rarely (very occasionally) chimps, because chimpanzees infrequently leave the hills for the beach, but still it is possible to hear their call. The call of the wild, that’s what it is. My umpteenth trip to Africa and each time that sound -the Sound- leads me to the origin of happiness.
Jane’s house is a parallelepiped of sheet metal, without any aesthetic claims, sheltering a disorderly sanctuary of human evolution. Jane left a day ago, but her assistants offered me a Kilimanjaro tea, and I am pleased and tired, weary from climbing a few Green Hills of Africa, in theory gentler than a mountain. I hiked for hours up and down a succession of hills to see the chimps climb, scramble, even crawl among the leaves, get tangled in the vines, slip and climb; me heaving with the entirely practical efforts of rising and falling in succession while naturally misbehaving monkeys, rise higher and higher. And my shoes were broken too.
Two months ago, or a little more, I put on a surgical mask for the first time in my life, because when one finally, with a bit of luck, manages to meet a group of chimpanzee, our relatives must be protected from the transmission of illnesses that could prove fatal to them. In 1966 in Gombe, an epidemy of poliomyelitis brought from primates of the nearby village, infected a population of chimps. Mc Gregor lost the use of his legs and an arm and died slipping to the ground among the foliage without much compassion from his companions. And in 1968, David Graybeard died, like others, of a strange pneumonia. Jane discovered that the chimps die of human (homo sapiens) illnesses. She also discovered that chimps, like sapient men, can be egoist, capable of gratuitous violence, killing like hunters, not for hunger, but for fun.
She discovered that they eat children, just like commies. They kidnap children from the neighboring village (a boy came home without an arm). The scientific world was horrified to learn of the violence that certain creatures are capable of, to which Jane said something like: “To them, we are primates like any other except without hair, if they eat a baboon they can eat us too. After all, for some human primates a monkey’s brain is a delicacy.”
And so voilà, the spillover is simple. In the wet markets of Macao, Hong Kong and China, in the black markets of animals sold live or cooked on the spot, ye wey, wild flavor, monkeys continue to meet an unpleasant end. Bats and pangolins as well, trapped in the same cage although they have nothing to do with each other. As though I were to share a cell with Donald Trump, for example. There, even the most minuscule of viruses jump from species to species, in order to go somewhere. Then again, how can we blame them?
But this is not just a question for the Chinese. It is African, Italian and it is global. Intensive breeding, cages, torture, the prisoners of every species and place, the “total institution” which Franco Basaglia spoke of, the inhumanity of which homo sapiens is a master, even if he is a hominid close relative to the chimpanzee and Bonobo (pan paniscus); Bonobo’s appear to be less aggressive, through a sliver of DNA only, we share the sole habit of French kissing.
A little more than two months ago, at Jane Goodall’s house, a cup of tea burnt my hands while lactic acid throbbed in my calves. There was a bottle of whiskey on the refrigerator, JB, like the initials of the beloved primate John Bull, and on cabinet in the living room, collection of monkey skulls, memorabilia of a life dedicated to studying The Shadow of Man and on a shelf in the bedroom there were books: Shakespeare’s entire oeuvre, Nelson Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom and Kipling, of course, The Jungle Book, the children’s read that contributed to Jane becoming perhaps one of the most important conservationist in the world, and to me, who, after reading that book, began to dream of the monkey kingdom, a woman who did it all wrong (out of cowardice, I chose writing rather than nature: Me tourist, You Jane).
And on the wall a poster: Go back. We fucked up everything.
I photographed that poster hanging on a wall along the corridor of Jan’s house, without ever imagining just how prophetic it would prove to be. Now that the entire world is forced to learn the meaning of cross species transmission and to ask itself: why? How could this happen? And now I too am asking myself why I didn’t follow my yearning to study animals instead of the psychic torment of sapient men.
And so, for two months now, I too have been dreaming of crossing species: a Fosbury though. Backwards by between one million eight hundred thousand and nine hundred thousand years ago, when the evolutionary lineage of pan troglodytes (chimpanzee) and pan paniscus (bonobo) separated. Just one jump between the forest branches, between the arms of a “peace and love” monkey. Because I need hugs, even if my shoes are broken.
(Or rather I dream of the only species crossing possible, because you cannot turn the clocks back: that of acknowledging our being an animal among animals, beasts endowed with possibility: science. Not conscience, but science. I would like us to reset according to the words of scientists now. Let the voices be heard and amplified by researchers in laboratories, universities, field work, who say that nature must run its course and that we depend on her and not vice versa. I ask that the men and women of letters listen and incorporate their voices into the music of books.
I can not read. The worlds avoid me. The pages all speak together, making stories or, conversely, remaining silent, without any response.
As a child, I remember asking the books why. God exists? Why does hunger exist in the world? Why was I born here and others in Chernobyl? I remember asking Alice these questions, because someone who goes through the mirrors is able to see what is beyond our reflection.
I ask Atreiu and Bastian, who defeated the Nothing and who saved the world of fantasy, a fragile world, which shatters every time reality takes away hope. I asked for help from the Martians of Ray Bradbury, the explorers of Jules Verne, the warriors of Emilio Salgari and even the detectives of Agatha Christie.
Nobody got the answers. But everyone had the tools to make me understand that I had to have patience and stay inside my emotions, inside the sense of waiting. Even inside the pain.
Because in this period in which we are all suspended, in this historical moment in which we do not touch the ground with our feet, but we do not even have the strength to touch the sky with a finger, we humanly ask for the answers without dwelling on what we all feel together .
It is frightening to remain silent with one’s anxieties and doubts. That’s why we sing on the balconies, which is nice, but then, when the choirs come out, we can’t handle the silence.
But for this reason, now more than ever, books are the voice that takes care of our silence. They don’t pretend to give us a solution or even tell us when all this will end. There are, like those strong shoulders of the fathers who support the innocent fragility of their children. Books are gestures that take care of us, of our insecurities. They take us to distant places because they always have a return ticket in their pocket. They comfort us because they reserve a story that represents us. They are waiting for us with that patience that we lose these days. Even if we struggle to read them in this period because the pain of the losses and the anxiety of the future are too strong, they are there and they listen to us in silence, without judging us, without pretending to be right or wrong.
Because in the end we are all called together today to write our own page of life and this will be the book written by billions of people, a single great book that we will all write, with our lifestyle, our emotional signature, our happy personal end, which will not be an ending, but at least an incipit for new stories.
The pages that we will write together will be the world that we cannot wait to read in one breath.
Today is the first day of Spring. The perception of change has arrived. It was night and I woke up suddenly with my heart beating faster, in the still, dark room. It didn’t feel like an explosion of awareness, but rather like an implosion, a metamorphosis. The world around me was imploding. Daily life was precipitating and the most banal of habits would soon no longer be habits. Normality was taking a different form. The virus has stolen contact from us. No more embracing, not even a handshake. “What is wrong?” my husband asks, awaken by my anxiety. His voice has the softness of interrupted night and it is sweet.
“I am afraid. What if I have it?”
“Go to sleep,” He answers.
There are those who evoke times of war, a poor comparison. When the bombs whistled by, you could grasp your friend or neighbor, a warm body to give your support and comfort. This, however, is an invisible enemy. I turn over in bed and curl up, holding my own body as long as it is still mine.
It is paradoxical how quickly things can change. Suddenly, we realize how much we miss the proximity of others. A stranger we touch by accident, a friend we greet with an embrace and a kiss on the cheek. Crowds at concerts, or along narrow streets crowded with tourists. I think that when this all ends I will go to a concert where I can breathe in the bodies of others, feel human and alive rather than dangerous and in danger.
The body is where everything begins and ends. It is the motor of everything, powerful and fragile. My own body is reacting entirely and unexpectedly to the quarantine. Something novel is happening that I do not comprehend. The further the world implodes, the more my own body is imposing itself as a priority. I used to spend my days putting off what matters most, like family, home, interests or hobbies, in favor of my work commitments. Or making excuses that revolved around the weather. The forced blockade to contain the COVID-19 has overturned the equation. I work tirelessly cleaning, tidying, mixing, baking. I have time for my family and when I ask a friend how he or she is, I mean it. I like working outside in the garden. It is something I have always wanted to do but never had the time. It takes physical effort. I arrange the cobblestones, uproot weeds with painstaking consistency, clean flower beads, repot plants, plant seedlings in the small vegetable garden behind the house which I dug and cleaned, obstinately breaking up even the most resistant clods with my hands. The pallor that I used to disguise with makeup has been replaced by color. Fatigue has awakened my body. I am hungrier, called to life by the insistent rumbling in my stomach which I haven’t heard for over twenty years. I am aware of my body’s movement and the way it expresses itself. I am evolving. My body is regaining its own, long-denied space. body expression.
Silence comes at the end of the day. It is 9pm and where we are used to noise there is silence. Not peace and quiet, silence. “Do you remember last summer when we got up at 4am to go to the airport?” It is the same kind of silence, my husband reminds me. He is right. The world should be teeming with life at this hour. A misted moon pierces the branches of my almond tree that bloomed at least twenty days in advance this year. There are already small green leaves that mottle the branches while flower petals have almost all fallen on the lawn. They look like rice grains outside of church.
I think of the allotted time which this absurd situation has granted. We who never had time, distracted, bulimic with frenzy, greedy and eternally seeking well-being, who spent hours wandering aimlessly in search of unneeded things to buy. We who stood at the bus stop shoulder to shoulder yet lost in our phones, who thoughlessly bumped into each other, careless of space and our body’s place in it. We are coming to terms with this ambiguity. The virus is setting some things right. We are no longer a distracted and soulless “we”. Rather, each person is forced to look within, to search, dig, understand ourselves better. And to rediscover who we are because there are no more alibis.
I stop to inhale. The air is cleaner. The stars in the sky seem to shine brighter. The noise of bustling that permeated every moment, everything, has disappeared. There is a reconnection, a new perspective, a change of rhythm. Some have said that the virus will be gone by summer. Today is the first day of Spring.
The real test isn’t just waiting for the storm to pass.
It’s the first hours of the day that are the hardest. The ones when the rational mind hasn’t yet raised its defenses; the ones when dreams, with their terrors or hopes, are still intimate bodies lying beside yours; the ones when emotional reactions are unrestrained and the mind hasn’t yet been subdued by the mantra “don’t think, don’t look, don’t feel”.
I don’t know whether to call it fear, this presence I’ve been waking up to every morning for weeks now. And yet, I know all about fears. I’ve always been good at taming them, handling them, avoiding them. But this one’s different. And my brain struggles to recognize it. Just like the virus, there’s no looking this one in the eye.
Fear is a force that drives you to curl up in a ball; this one isn’t. Fear is a body filled with pain that makes the world disappear to your eyes; this one isn’t. Fear is the triumph of self-absorption; this one, maybe not. And yet in the morning it leaves the same taste in your mouth as a dream that you wanted to wake up from but couldn’t.
“So what are you?” I ask, trying to study it, to understand it, to find a vaccine that’ll make me feel safe. But it slips past all the rules I learned during years of analysis. It’s not like a lion roaring fiercely; it’s not the boogeyman lurking inside the wardrobe; it doesn’t take the form of paranoia or creeping anxiety. It’s much more regal. It has the terrifying appearance of the seraphim depicted by medieval mystics, with a shape that seems to contradict what lies within. From the looks of them, they seem like monsters with the frightening appearance of a multiform animal: two heads, a bird’s feet, a man’s body. And yet they were also called “angels”.
“So who are you?” I ask it as I force myself out of bed. But this fear doesn’t reply, and it stares at me, ready to attack, like a snake that at the first sudden reaction lunges at your throat. And its venom is strangely contagious. It spreads to the people around you, darkening their thoughts too, paralyzing their desire to live too, leaving an indelible mark of defeat on everyone.
“So what’s your underlying nature?” I ask it. But it’s already given me the answer. This fear has a strangely altruist character. It forces you to protect not only yourself but also those around you. It forces you to leave your world, because you can’t afford for the panic to spread. It forces you to stop staring at your feet, because the enemy wins, hands down, if you lock yourself up in your tower.
“So let’s try looking at them, at the others,” I think, giving in, as I force myself to throw open the heavy shutters on my bedroom window, as I glimpse a smile from my girlfriend, who’s making tea in the kitchen like it’s any ordinary day, as I decide whether or not to answer the first phone call that bursts from my phone.
And so I look out the window and suddenly see a world that’s far vaster than the horizon in which my eyes are trapped. I look at myself in the mirror and see that the garden wall isn’t enough to make you feel safe anymore. Because in facing this invisible enemy there aren’t any borders, inside or out, far or near. And for a second I find myself hoping I’ll never lose this feeling.
In facing this fear, it’s not just me anymore. But we’re just one body that weeps and consoles itself, that screams and struggles, that sighs and sings from the balcony. We’re doctors, and bodies lacking oxygen.
They say fear separates, isolates, shuts in. But not this one. It shuts in but also unites. It isolates but also draws us out of our little ego. It separates, but only physically.
And so I think: Maybe the real test is holding tight to this fear. Not driving it off, not turning away, not pushing it down. But on the contrary guarding it. Like the dearest of friends. Not forgetting about it once it’s gone. Not disowning it when it’s replaced by smaller, pettier fears, more everyday, self-absorbed ones. By captors who want to take us back to our cells. Because this one really has the power to make a change.
And I think it’s funny. I wanted to talk about the fear of coronavirus. And instead here I am, writing about an emotion that seems more like love than panic.
Translated by Leah Janeczko
Enzo Maria Napolillo
If you see a couple walking hand in hand,
don’t call the police.
Don’t stop thinking
If you see a child playing in a courtyard,
don’t call the police.
Don’t lose your mind.
Translated by Leah Janeczko
Some time ago, before this “thing” reared its ugly little face from the other side of the world, before it arrived to distribute pain and fear, I came upon a map of the sky dense web of thin red threads which represented airplane routes. I tried to imagine the number of people who moved with ease from one part of the planet to another. The immensity of it left me in awe, even though all of our lives were full of flying, meeting up, working and having fun, and before this “thing” arrived to ingulf everything, we devoured our days with greed without even coming up to breathe.
Then the “thing” arrived, and everything stopped. Today, the map would be as different as every single person’s life. We are isolated in our houses, forced to confront what lies within. We watch the distressing television clips and wait for 6 pm on the dot when the civil protection service announces our sick and dead. We listen to the city’s silent breathing from our windows and balconies; and we desperately try to find a way to prevent all that pain from uncontrollably dilating in time and possessing us, while we pace disoriented. We search for others on Houseparty, organize dinners on Zoom, follow lessons in cooking, yoga, knitting, and virtually attend pop up concerts. We try to incorporate into our lives everything out there that we left suspended, interrupted, unattended to, if not for a brief, desolate walk to the supermarket line.
Imprisoned between the living room, the kitchen and the bedroom, we wander in search of all we lost. In that sea of frozen time we feel nostalgia watching our bright life of before, the frenetic pace in which we consumed our relentless search for happiness. And, now that we cannot leave the shadows of our abode, we are forced to confront the essence. What is really left, net the many things we thought we had but which slipped away beneath our very eyes like fine sand through a sieve.
There is a little story in Watzlawitck’s The Pursuit of Unhapiness: “under a streetlamp there stands a drunk who searches and searches. A policeman comes along, asks him what he is looking for, and the man answers, ‘My keys.’ Now they both search. After a while the policeman wants to know whether the man is sure that he lost his key here, and the later answers, “No, not here, back there- but it is much too dark.”
Who knows, maybe there is something precious hidden here inside, where it is worth searching. Even if it is dark.
Now add insomnia to the list,
an evil I have never suffered from,
I dream of cocaine, alcohol, hungover from life
if lived open aired,
and I dream of the sea and the promenade
and waves that come to lick me feet,
I dream of having sex in the branches
but it’s like a waking daydream.
Meanwhile, my body sits here in front of a computer:
your words no longer in my head,
a tongue mute for sentences and abc’s,
and limp hands, chafed from sanitizer,
that the self doesn’t recognize as its own,
and whose face is faceless, and a mask.
WANDERING IN THE FOG
My old friend, I speak to you from this far away place. I know you feel alone, just as I do, enchained in the shadow of your thoughts. Estranged from yourself, just as I am. Here, I have come to realize that these days do not better us. My discourse with the souls that inhabit this very region has not grown. It has crumbled. I speak to you as I do them, standing on the sharp edge of a degenerating end. From this gate which offers me a view of the vast valley before me, I am still blind to my future. They say it will pass. That which is disintegrating will one day settle. But if you wouldn’t mind, shine a ray of light into the dark night while I wait for this end to be reborn. My old friend, I speak to you from this far away place. When I think of you I envision you imprisoned in a home where so much history has unfolded that I will not even try to recount it. From the hole in which you have buried history, you rise, little by little, making of your corpse, a body, between dried flowers that hold ripening seeds. If you only desired, saw yourself… you are so beautiful. I wish for you to know so that you can live the morning and live the night. Those who have fled are never to return, they say in the radio. You never were able to recite prayers. They say we must learn new words and new manners to adapt to the strange geometrical shapes that have taken root on the novel horizons. If only this was just a game. Take me: I only knew of bottomless crocks in ghost regions. The empty houses and squares, the church bells, silenced forever. I know places without golden hours and the sounds of violent car horns. Steps that don’t leave prints, the whispers of shadows. I’ll tell you something else. I’ve seen roses being secretly dropped on shattered altars: Oh God of the departed, someone has confessed sub rosa their torment. I didn’t know of cities both populated and completely deserted. Women and men imprisoned in their own homes, left to consume forgotten rests; left miles behind in the review mirror. They scramble, completing illusory tasks to pass the time. When the Spring swallow comes they will call her to their window hoping for an escape. They will watch her from the inside, hidden, as she flies to freedom. Where has everyone gone? What have we become, and how did this happen? That the sun should shine without the promise of spring or summer. Who granted it knowledge of rooftops and balconies? The television instructs us to learn new things. We will learn to appreciate every speck of life: the bread, the bread maker and the grain that grants us energy. We will learn that the world owes us nothing, that the earth does not belong to us and the air in the sky is not ours to breathe. And that the hate we exhale will come back to haunt us in strange and obscure ways. We will learn that the sons and daughters of our neighbors have just as much right to the world as our own. And that when a child dies on the shores of a faraway place, we should care. And if we don’t now, we will. We will learn that we are the keepers of our species and that man fails as easily as any other animal. We will learn responsibility and that rash decisions beg confusion and chaos. We will learn that no one will ever do your job for you, and that we must each play our part in the world. Whether you call it ethics, biological responsibility, or a vital phenomenon. We will learn that death is not a far away place, but a current reality lurking in the dark, ready to strike at any moment, any one, mercilessly and without regret or shame because old age is no longer the only key to the gateway beyond. We will learn that isolation can be our downfall, and that if we don’t help each other, if we don’t see each other, if we don’t care for each other, we will ultimately fail. Will we learn?
When the pain is gone, when the losses are over and the monster’s defeated, we’ll still have the words. At times they fade and are forgotten but they never completely die.
An old man on an ordinary park bench in an ordinary city will begin to tell a story. Maybe he’ll be all alone, but if we listen to his words, they’ll have the power to become memory, resistance, elaboration, mourning, reconstruction.
An ordinary writer in an ordinary place in the world will turn on his computer, press some keys and start writing. He’ll create something imaginative or factual, perhaps precious legacy. His words will remain a secret or be shared and read, will travel through countries and bodies. They’ll nourish the souls of those who welcome them or drift away like water down a river. Little does it matter if they turn into ash or inestimable wealth; those words will have been and will remain a possibility.
An ordinary mother in an ordinary part of the world will embrace her child and whisper words she’s never told them before. An ordinary man and an ordinary woman will walk hand in hand in an ordinary city, speaking of love.
They can deprive us of everything, frighten us, immobilize us, but all it takes is a word that’s said, heard, read, whispered, spoken, to begin anew. It takes a word, just one, to remind us who we are. Freedom!, cry men at the end of every war, and this is a war we’re living through. And our words are what will set us free, the ones we’re protecting and silencing, the ones we’ll tell our children and the ones we’ve sealed up in our homes.
To be clear: despite the silence, despite the isolation, they won’t let themselves be imprisoned. Even now, even at this moment, while my hands move with confidence and fill this sheet of paper, one of them will escape my control, slip away through my drafty wooden windows, fly past the trees and the parrots that inhabit them, caress the first buds, cross the sky, whirl over the sea, accompany our lost men and women on their final journey, flout walls and borders until it finds a place where it can come to rest, perhaps on other hands, other eyes, other hearts behind a blue mask.
We are our words. It’s good to remember it now that we’re living through this war, because afterwards, when nothing will be as it was before, they’re what will rescue us.
Words are our shared human certainty.
Translated by Leah Janeczko
Late last night I went out. I felt like going to see a friend. Papà had just gotten back from the shop where they buy those little boxes and I slipped out the open door. The sun had been out all day. We normally go for a walk at this hour, to see each other… This time I was alone.
I crossed through our neighbor’s flowerbed—she and I don’t get along—and did a good job of trampling her precious violets. She didn’t come out to yell at me. Better off.
I passed by the school, just to take a look. The light in the janitors’ booth was off. Strange. I played for a while with a ball of wool they always leave in the playground, but then the dog who lives there showed up and I left.
A wonderful place where I could lie down for a nap came to mind. To get there I went past—nice and slowly—the shop with food. In its window I saw a pretty sunrise (that’s what it’s called, right?) and a nice reflection of me. I glanced at the shelf where they keep the fish treats: empty. It made me start to worry.
The wonderful place, the shop with books, should have been open already. I sat on the welcome mat, waiting for the glass doors to let me in, like always. They didn’t.
A window opened overhead. The man from the shop with books lives there. He was holding a cup in his hand and had dark red bags under his eyes. He looked around, saw me under his window. “No breakfast today, bello,” he said.
I rubbed against the door with my whole body, which means, “Come on, do as I say!”
“No breakfast, I told you,” he said with a sigh. “I’m sorry, Ottimo. Come back in a couple hours. I’ll leave you a saucer of milk out on the mat.”
“Meow,” I replied, and went back home. Before scratching on the door for them to let me in, I laid out in the middle of the empty street, which was still silent. Their houses on wheels seemed to have been asleep for a hundred years. They didn’t frighten me in the least. I stared at my belly, then a teensy star still alive in the sky, which was by then almost completely pale blue, caught my attention. And for some reason I felt bad for the humans.
If the shop with books is closed, either they’re all losing their minds or something very sad is happening. The shops with books should never close. Otherwise where do all the kitties go for breakfast?
Translated by Leah Janeczko
CHANGE OF STATE
“And what precisely remains to be told before we come to the height of the plague, while the pestilence was gathering all its strength for an assault on the town, so that it could take hold of it for good, are the long, desperate, monotonous efforts that a few individuals like Rambert made to rediscover happiness and to preserve from the plague that part of themselves that they defended against all assault. This was their way of resisting the threat of slavery”
(trans. Stuart Gilbert)
On the fifteenth day, the change of state is clear. Like when we studied chemistry in high school. Solid-gas-liquid state. Up until a few days ago we were in the state of expectation, a suspension, though one we were sure would reboot our lives to exactly the same state we’d been in before. Like when you click PAUSE on the remote. You make a cup of tea, you go to the bathroom and then the TV show starts up again at exactly the same spot where we’d left off.
We voraciously and enthusiastically threw ourselves into household activities. We baked cakes (everyone but me), made pizza dough (everyone but me), practiced sports (this one I did too), tried to defend, like characters in The Plague, the part of ourselves that we absolutely didn’t want to let go of.
Meanwhile, though, emotions ran through us: worry, anxiety, fear. We saw the appalling images of the military trucks transporting coffins out of Bergamo. We listened to the opinions of a hundred virologists, two hundred doctors, pundits, journalists. But the boundaries around the problem seemed too blurry for us to fully understand. We were horrified by the numbers: illnesses, deaths. None of them focusing on those recovered.
We began to be affected by incidents close to us: our uncle’s friend, a neighbor, the father of my friend from high school. “He was 65. He was healthy. Practiced sports,” my mother tells me over the phone. She’s 62 years old, like my father.
Anxiety assumes a solid state when the problem becomes something extremely close. It’s no longer an idea, a report on the evening news, but a fact. Even for my mother, who’s always found practical solutions to be the remedy for stress. Act, never let yourself go. Sterilize the house every day, learn to make masks in the oven following a YouTube tutorial. Shut my father up in his study. “Fortunately he has work to do.”
“It is impossible for someone to dispel his fears about the most important matters if he doesn’t know the nature of the universe but still gives some credence to myths,” wrote Epicurus, for whom fears derived from ignorance. Lack of knowledge leads to fear. We’re scared because we don’t fully understand what’s going on. We listen to the newscasts, read the newspaper headlines. Yes, it’s a health crisis. But there remain unclear aspects, fine lines, areas that make no sense. And if those who work with illness and virology can’t give us answers, what could we, shut up in our homes, possibly know?
March 22nd, 2020. I had to check my phone. I couldn’t remember today’s date. It’s the day everything was closed in Italy, even production activities, all the offices and business practices. We can’t move around anymore except for “reasons of proven necessity”. We’re motionless, we don’t know what the future has in store and we’re devastated by an unexpected present. Everything has changed in the span of a month.
“I’m overwhelmed,” I tell my analyst, who presses me about the reasons for my fears.
“With me you have to be honest, not the version of Marta who can do it, but the Marta who gains an awareness of her fears.”
That’s the word that came to me: overwhelmed. By events, by emotions, by the global situation, by the solitude.
The night I saw the images from Bergamo I cried. I cried for the city, for those human beings and their families, for what’s happening to us and devastating us. I cried for myself because just then what I wanted weren’t Skype calls but an actual hug. Someone holding me close and telling me, “I’m here. You’re not alone.” A shared silence.
“You know what you should think of… Anne Frank and Nelson Mandela. Right now we’re them, with the difference that we’re not in a cell, in Mandela’s case, and the SS aren’t out to send us to a concentration camp. But right now we’re them and we’re not suspended. We’re living through this moment. This is our present.”
And I realize I was getting it all wrong. What we’re living through isn’t a moment of expectation, a suspension. It’s our life. My life, my present moment.
Who am I now? I’m a 35-year-old woman who wants to read books about philosophy and psychotherapy. Who no longer wants to delve into other people’s stories, maybe because she feels like she’s living in such a dystopian novel that she needs some form of reality. Reference points, food for thought.
Epicurus develops his philosophy at a moment of crisis. It’s the fourth century BC. Classical Greece in all its splendor has collapsed, Philip II of Macedon has conquered Greece, and Alexander the Great inherits and expands his empire. People are afraid. For philosophy it’s no longer the time for ontological dissertations, but to offer people help and shelter. “Vain is the word of a philosopher if does not heal any suffering of man.”
Epicurus travels from Samos to Athens and founds his school in a garden, a place to meet with friends, philosophize and, he often repeats, laugh. A school based on an understanding of nature, to defeat fears, and on the search for happiness. His is a philosophy for everyone, so that everyone can gain access to philosophy, and not, as Plato sustained, a form of knowledge exclusive to the elite, the Aristoi, the aristocrats. “If we’re happy we have everything we need,” he would say, and happiness is for everyone.
And where is happiness found? Happiness lies in pleasure, but not as we later misinterpreted it, as hedonism for its own sake, or excess, or beauty worship.
To Epicurus, pleasure is something much more similar to what we would call “the essential”. Each of us needs to come to terms with the things that are good for us and those that are bad for us, and seek out the former. He recommends, but doesn’t demand—it’s not a religion, it has no dogma, and everyone can take measures as they see fit for themselves—a life that’s as frugal as possible, because the fewer things you need, the more you can achieve happiness and distance yourself from concerns.
Pleasure is complete, perfect good, but it isn’t a question of the pleasures of the depraved; instead, pleasure is “freedom from pain in the body and freedom from turmoil in the soul”. A happy life is the result of “sober reasoning”. This is why, in concluding his letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus praises prudence, considered the foundation of all virtue (in which virtue is intended as the whole of habitual behaviors that can stably provide for our happiness). Prudence is indeed the habit of containing one’s desires and carefully assessing the consequences of our choices, providing for a wide margin of safety to avoid the possibility that from good may derive evil. Epicurus also stated, “One should bring this question to all desires: what will happen to me if what is desired and sought is achieved, and what will happen if it is not?”
Epicurus says something even more interesting that should make us reflect in times like these: “The future is not entirely in our hands.” But in part it is. And he encourages us to let go of what we can’t control while focusing on what we can.
We can’t foresee the developments of the Covid-19 contagion. We can’t know how long the world will end up sealed in this bubble. We don’t know when we’ll go back to leaving the house, working and traveling. There’s something we can do, though: Focus on ourselves and our desires. For 27 years of imprisonment, Nelson Mandela runs in place and then studies and writes and never stops believing in his ideas. Anne Frank writes down her memories as a girl, which will be so precious to all the children who come after her.
We’re here and we’re afraid.
Afraid of the illness.
Afraid of the contagion.
Afraid for our loved ones.
Afraid for ourselves.
Afraid for our jobs.
Afraid about our mortgage payments.
Afraid we won’t make it.
I try to stop myself. To banish my fears. To focus on me.
What does me good now?
What keeps my anxieties away?
Hearing from my friends and my parents.
What makes me feel better?
Studying and going back over things forgotten.
There. That’s my new present state. There might not be a definition for it, but it exists and it’s me. Now. In the contagion.
Translated by Leah Janeczko
22nd day of quarantine.
The people’s resistance.
The elderly forced to stay home.
A couple of children play in a courtyard.
Many watch, no one leaves.
Music from windows.
Some exercise on the building’s terrace.
Crows command and squawk.
Police checks everywhere.
I do not believe in the rhetoric of time recovered.
I do not believe it will change how we see others.
I do not believe we will come out better by this experience.
As we came in, each in his or her own way.
This is how Monica came in.
March 1, 2020
The news that most wrenched my heart, in the COVID-19 media hypertrophy, was the decision not to give the sign of peace during Mass. I’ve always liked the gesture of shaking a stranger’s hand and, with a smile, uttering that short, soothing word: peace. When I was little I would leave my pew to shake as many hands as possible, because it made me feel part of a community, curbed loneliness, kept the hopes up.
If the sign of peace needs to be done away with, though, it means we can distrust others even in church; that even in the place where they ask us to love others as we love ourselves, those others are a threat; that their imperfect, mortal body is what concerns us, far more than their soul, because their body has the power to put an end to our earthly life, and little does it matter that according to doctrine an eternal one awaits us. If suspicion pulls us apart even before the altar, then nothing can curb loneliness: we’re isolated in our biological finitude.
To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of the precautions being taken; I trust in the experts who deem it necessary. I’m not talking about science, but fear. Especially since I rarely attend Mass, and sneak in when I do.
Social media is packed with literary references these days, from Manzoni’s description of the plague to Saramago’s Blindness. As usual, I thought of Orwell, 1984. In a totalitarian regime that’s out to control thoughts, the most powerful form of subversion is falling in love. What does that have to do with it? you’ll be wondering. In the ferocious totalitarianism of our mortal condition—which no one chose and to which everyone is condemned—it’s desiring another person’s body, a body destined to decompose; it’s breaking down the barrier between bodies through intimacy with someone who didn’t conceive us and to whom we didn’t give birth, that is, a stranger, maybe someone you’ve only just met, about whom everything or almost everything has yet to be discovered. And this is what attracts us. Desiring their fragile body is an act of rebellion, of Promethean arrogance, of humanity’s comeback against nature. What is falling in love if not a defiance of death?
Forbidding hugs, intimate chats, trips, concerts, movies, forbidding people to be together: that’s what frightened me. In reaction, I called up friends I hadn’t seen for a long time. I wanted to hold them close. At the very thought that in the subway or in a café, right now, someone is falling in love and, forgetful of viruses and their own caducity, touches their lips to unknown lips, something relaxes inside me. Chaos regains order, no matter how precarious or illogical it may be.
Others can always hurt us. This constant risk is what makes living among humans a miracle, at least when, rather than considering each other a threat to be annihilated, they touch to exchange a sign of peace.
March 10, 2020
It was the fourth colonoscopy of my life, and in the past I’d even done them while conscious. And yet this morning I was completely on edge. It was probably due to the fear of our lives suddenly having changed, our lives which are held together by the things and people we love, and which risk wavering without those things and people. Or maybe it was because in recent years I’ve read so much about war that emotionally I feel there, even if rationally I know it’s not true, but it’s with that barren world in search of the resources needed to survive that associations are triggered in my head.
And so I was crying this morning, looking into the eyes of the doctor and the anesthesiologist. I apologized for my tears, wiped them with a tissue, but I cried. And they tried to distract me by asking what I did for a living. I started talking about books, about my most recent one, about those of others. The last word I uttered before falling asleep was “Strout”. Then I dreamed of the publishing house, this wonderful work that not even the effort of having to travel through Italy and Europe every weekend (I took a pass on Canada and Thailand, for example) because of At the Wolf’s Table has managed to take away from me. I dreamed of books, and when I woke up it seemed strange that I wasn’t in the office.
I think of all those who can’t work from home, who are forced to go out, factory employees, temporary workers, delivery people, medical and nursing staff members…. I’m privileged: I can read anywhere, write a back cover anywhere, come up with a publishing plan anywhere, talk on the phone anywhere, and yet up until yesterday I was in the office, because the place is home to me. We keep saying how nice it is to stay home: yes, I realize that. At home you can write, read, draw, sing when the music’s playing, take hot showers. But you have to choose to. Not choosing to is frightening, and there’s no need to stigmatize someone who’s frightened, to tell them they simply aren’t used to being all alone, that that’s what they’re frightened of—themselves. I’ve been through enough years of analysis and have written enough novels to understand the inner brinks from which I risk falling. Besides, up until I was 18 I lived with a father who wouldn’t let me do practically anything, and though along with my mother’s apprehension it made me claustrophobic, it also gave me a reason to inhabit an imaginary world, one to me more real than reality: the world of books.
Without the movies, the theater, concerts, constant traveling through Italy and abroad, public appearances, lunches with friends, I lose a lot of the identity I worked hard to develop, I lose pieces of who I am—because I’m also my relationships with others, no matter the degree of intimacy—and to some degree I go back to being that girl who couldn’t leave the house. Maybe that’s what makes me cry.
But then I remind myself that I have books, that another one by Strout is being released today, that Duras and Pavese saved me in my adolescence, even if they weren’t saved, if they didn’t manage to save themselves, and maybe no one really knows how to save themselves—and yet, paradoxically, with a book they can keep someone else’s life together.
March 15, 2020
I went out to buy the paper. Livio came with me. As we were walking, a woman leaned out her window and, finger raised, started shouting that both of us shouldn’t have gone out, that people shouldn’t go outside together. Livio tried to answer her, politely, but she talked over him. I burst into tears.
I’m terrified that this quarantine might generate an anthropological mutation, with us considering someone else only as a suspect, an annoyance, a threat, an obstacle, a funnel into which to pour our hatred, our frustration; someone else as someone to be defeated, annihilated. This atrocious mechanism was already going on with migrants. Today it’s no longer even a problem of ethnicity or social class. It’s more radical, it’s primordial, as it is every time the struggle to survive becomes a literal one.
Not long after that I saw a couple sitting on a park bench. He was stroking her belly. Sights like this are what help me breathe. I couldn’t care less about surviving if I don’t stay human. I’m not a beast that eats craps and sleeps. I need all the rest to feel that existence exists.
April 3, 2020
All this rhetoric about what the virus has taught us and is teaching us about ourselves and our vulnerabilities, I find it unbearable. I don’t want to learn anything about sacrifice, about pain, about the desperation of millions of people. That I’m mortal, that so are others, everyone I love, the thought that death exists despite or because of God, basically, is the thought with which I live every day, with which I write books. There’s no greater obsession. I don’t need to learn it at this price. And above all, what would come from this awareness, except for collective paralysis? Human beings manage to live only if they occasionally forget their own mortality.
Your consolatory optimism isn’t working. I don’t want to learn anything. Everything I could learn from this horror I knew already, and it already made living life worse for me.
Translated by Leah Janeczko
Beep. The products at the checkout counter of a small town supermarket. Barbara is supposed to retire in six months. She washes her hands at the end of each shift, just like she was told on television. But the mask on her face is a day old; there weren’t any left in the warehouse.
Beep. The machines in intensive care, tubes driven into many throats. Uno dreams of silence. Instead, it’s like being in a Monday morning traffic jam. The Bips have slipped into his dreams.
Beep. Aldo hears that noise in his sleep. Seventy years and a few heart attacks on his resume. Yet he was just fine yesterday, his friends would say. If only the bar had not closed.
Beep. Francesco’s 5am alarm clock goes off in the deserted city of Bergamo where even the dead have left. It’s true that silence can fill in as it wishes: life, understanding, embarrassment, but it depends on who you share it with. Francesco is alone in the middle of nowhere. He fills his quiet days with his mobile phone. Hi mom, don’t worry, yes, I ate, but you be careful! Someone spit in the face of a supermarket cashier. A friend sent me the article.
Beep. He hangs up and swallows as he crosses the threshold of the ward where he has worked for the last ten years. Today, he finds five microphones pointed in his direction. What happens in an intensive care unit? Have you any young people sick? Tonight his mother will watch him on TV, from her sofa. A cough and then another. It’s nothing, just pride and joy gone down the wrong tube, she will think. Francesco on TV, like famous people.
VIP. Speaking of VIPs, where aren’t there any tests for the poor bastards. Do they know whether they are positive or not?
Beep. Anti-theft devices have been activated in the shops, restaurants and offices. Listen to the shutters closing over the country. It is unbearable, like roaring or screeching.
Beep. Voicemail. Leave a message after the beep. The office has closed and David is at home unemployed. He walks back and forth across the living room like a man on a mission. No sorry if I am disturbing, maybe you are busy…what am I saying? I don’t know…it’s just that maybe tomorrow I will have a tube in my throat so I thought I’d call you. Well, I don’t know.
Beep. Guglielmo inserts the reverse gear. His truck carries essentials, the government says. He almost hits a distracted boy on a motorbike. He shouts swears from his open window, before he intercepts the gaze of the Madonna dangling on the car dashboard. Maybe he will light a candle when all this ends and the churches reopen. Despite his blasphemy swearing. Then maybe he’ll go out for a pizza with Amadou. He was never a fan of Arabs but Amadou gave him hand sanitizer when he needed it, and they are sharing this truck during these days of hard work.
Beep. Franco, who worked at a hotel doorman, teaches his son to ride a bicycle on the terrace and tries not to swear. What is everyone singing about? Including his neighbor, who either sings or mutters the same two words on his phone. Easy for him, with a permanent job waiting for him in a cozy office. But then Bella Ciao starts and Franco joins the singing in a low voice. What is yours if not the Resistance.
Beep. Beep cries his son as he darts out on the terrace. Look dad, no hands. And he will never know how his favorite neighbor ended up in the hospital. That kind gentleman who gave out candies for cheek kisses. When he is well, the child will show him how he rides a bike now, without training wheels.
Beep. The horn of a motorbike speeding through the city to deliver food. Giovanni is twenty years old and his grandfather is alone in the hospital. Every evening, he calls the ward. The kind doctor answers. We are doing everything possible. You just have to wait. In the meantime, he drives his motorbike and plays ball in the garden every Sunday.
BEEEEP. While passing the change in his gloved hand to a woman, the sound of a machine on the other side of town signals that a heart has stopped beating. A kind doctor has ceased to hope, but there is no time for tears. There is another body to care for.
Rip. This is something that really pisses me off. Take the time to write it in full. There is so much there, in those short letters. Sunday family dinner, 18th birthday and every single error.
Beep. The microphones turn on for the eighteenth press conference on TV. Aldo is worth one of many Aldo’s who were elderly and had had one to many heart attacks. He dies in silence, no he dies on the Monday morning highway. Surrounded by the beeps of all the Aldo’s, he will have no flower on his coffin. The funeral will be one of many balls thrown against a garden wall. And given his age, it will hardly disturb even the most damning of statistics.
Trip. That is what happens in my head when I think of stories like these, interwoven like threads of a spider web. It seems as though History, like the sea, passes between the meshes of a net without leaving a trace. And while I look at my city from the terrace, I imagine that in this upside down world every word encloses its opposite.
Time holds its breath. Everything seems to have stopped, except for children who are becoming paler and taller, like plants growing in the dark. Never like now have I felt the heaviness of my choice to be honest with my small son, because using simple language to help him understand what is happening makes it all the more piercing and inexorable.
While he runs around the house fighting evil with Spiderman or inventing new, pet dinosaurs to keep him company and devour his fears, I fold clothes, make cookies that no one will eat, and rearrange drawers to suffocate new inadequacies that continue to sprout.
And I have never broken so many cups. They slip from my hands as though I were no longer able to feel objects between my fingers… Then I forget things. I am distracted by a trifle, in an unconscious attempt to detach myself from the present. They are useless attempts because the pain crawls under my skin little by little, and permeates a thin shield of survivor’s guilt.
And between the four walls which I cannot escape, although all things enter, I realize that I have lost my words. I have no words to wrap these feelings in, this life that lies between empty streets and loved ones vanished, in times where even suffering has become a contingent, measured according to a new concept of strict necessity.
Now, as we wrap around ourselves, we are forced to see ourselves naked, as we never before have, and we are split: a lighter half stays afloat, tied by a string to heavier one that has sunk and drags upon the water’s bottom.
Perhaps new languages, born from this dark, moving mud, will tell the story of a shared abyss in which our incomplete individual and transitory understanding sinks. And then, our thoughts will grow wings to fly beyond all this and beyond ourselves.
There’s going to be a Before and an After. But at this moment I want to experience the Now. I don’t want to miss out on anything about this dramatic and intense and revolutionary moment. For someone like me, who deals with food, it’s a huge satisfaction that the whole world, often without being aware of it, is putting into practice cooking therapy. Never like now has working with food meant finding an outlet for your creativity, but also your aggression, your fear, your uncertainty. Never like now has cooking meant “mixing up” your life to shape it into something new. As a writer and food critic I can’t help but give you a hypothetical recipe for the different world that awaits us.
Recipe for the New World
3 teaspoons of the ability to adapt
5 teaspoons of an enjoyment of the everyday
3 teaspoons of a rediscovery of the little things
3 teaspoons of perspective
3 teaspoons of imagination
5 teaspoons of self-criticism
3 teaspoons of respect (for others and for the planet)
a dash of irony
a pinch of the wish to start over again
1/2 cup of nostalgia
Put all the ingredients in a bowl, mix thoroughly and while doing so ask yourself, “What makes me truly happy?” Knead together with all the compassion you can find. But don’t settle for the second-rate, discounted compassion you might find abandoned on a shelf somewhere; choose with care the authentic kind, which traditionally means sharing others’ suffering. Smooth the mixture into a ball and bake it. Again ask yourself, “What makes me truly happy?” and wait, with trust and patience, before taking out from the oven your New World; you should feel truly ready to savor it.
Translated by Leah Janeczko
Yesterday, I saw that the house martins had arrived, and within a few days’ time, the barn swallows will follow suit.
There’s an old Italian proverb: “On Saint Benedict’s Day (21 March) you shall see / ’neath the roof a swallow returning to thee”. Swallows are almost extinct and no one remembers Saint Benedict anymore, but the folk wisdom that passed this saying down over the centuries reflects a fundamental fact: nature follows a precise, underlying schedule. Having lived in the countryside for years, I can only confirm this. There’s a day when the swallows arrive and another when the hoopoes arrive; then it’s the cuckoos’ turn, and the day when the forest sings with the song of the golden oriole.
Before becoming a writer, my job was to make nature documentaries for TV, and this passion— explaining how nature works—still inspires me. Nature is always a co-protagonist in my books. In Il grande albero [The Big Tree], it’s even the main character, but I certainly couldn’t put everything I know about it into a work of fiction. And so, in recent days it occurred to me that on a fairly regular basis I could write about nature’s progress over the course of the year.
Nowadays, everyone seems to have something to say about nature and about the environment—but unfortunately many possess a reductive view, influenced in some way by the world of ideas. To love nature, and therefore protect it, one must experience it, to walk through meadows, through woods or parks—when we’re allowed to do that again—recognize its flowers, watch its insects, its plants and trees.
We can learn to love nature only if we truly learn to understand it. The joy of the unexpected appearance of a flower or the rapid fluttering of the wings of a bird we haven’t seen for ages lead us to understand how nature reverberates within us, how our soul is reflected in its beauty. And this how essential it is to fight to protect it from our own destruction.
Translated by Leah Janeczko
And the spring equinox has arrived. For the first half minute of thinking about what to write in this message, I was tempted to start with a tirade—one of the many we’ve been reading these days—about how Nature goes on even without us and is in fact reclaiming its sacrosanct space in our absence. I’ve even seen a pretty aggressive video made about it. Plus pictures—wonderful in themselves—of clean skies, dolphins at the port of Cagliari, canals in Venice that look like crystal.
And yet I’m not going to go on any tirades against human beings. There’s really no need to.
We’re a part of Nature too. We’re not aliens who came from an extraterrestrial ecosystem to contaminate this one. We’re not refugees who fled another dimension. We’re just like the ants, the pine trees, the whales, the platypuses and the lichens: a product of the evolution of life on this planet. We’re born, we grow, we die, we eat, we get sick, we reproduce, we do poorly in some conditions and well in others.
And we make mistakes, just like plants and animals do. Ours carry more of a burden, and that’s something we absolutely have to consider. But we’re not a mistake. We’re not some messed-up gene. We’re not a disease.
We have the right to be here, like everything else. And the duty, the sacrosanct duty to take care of ourselves. And everything else. Human and otherwise.
We’ve never been in the wrong place. We’re here.
And we’ll continue to be.
Translated by Leah Janeczko
I’ve always lived with a strange cloud over my head, with the pressing feeling that something would happen, would wipe out everything from one moment to the next. They were brimming with them, my dreams as a little girl and then, as an adult, my conscious and unconscious thoughts, and I based my whole life on a simple and yet tough discipline: nothing was owed to me, every breath was a gift being given to me, with love.
I live in Milan, but not downtown, in a working-class neighborhood where some don’t respect the basic rules about living among others, let alone wear sterile gloves and masks. Though it’s strange to say, now that beside me I see this silent, invisible enemy advancing like a camouflaged soldier in the middle of a forest, I feel strangely calm. Tired, maybe.
Actually, I was wrong to say “I see”. I don’t see it, but I sense it. I have a powerful sense of the pain of those on the other side of the walls and windows, the loneliness of an elderly man left all on his own, of a woman trapped indoors with a violent partner, of children left without guidance. I sense this immense, powerful collective energy and it’s hard for me to sleep, as though we were all a single organism—and yet so different, now more than ever, based on our choices, on social constraints, on psychological problems we might have struggled with our whole lives. I hear a deafening sound that overpowers and drowns out the constant blare of ambulance sirens, and it’s the sound of souls who are afraid. Who don’t know what to do. Who find themselves scared and powerless when faced with the decisions of people, of politicians, whom they’ve never trusted and don’t trust now.
The world changes, and the change brings pain but it makes new things come to be. I hope this change doesn’t catch us too unprepared.
The advice I’m giving all my friends and family these days is: prepare not only your mind but also your body. Make yourselves invincible, or close to it. Get lots of physical exercise, especially cardio and breathing. Having suffered for years from panic attacks, I know how much breathing exercises can help the concentration and relieve anxiety. Learn something outside your profession, something that always comes in handy, for others or yourself. Listen to lots of music, which is the most ancient art and the best way to soothe pain, as well as the most immediate vehicle of beauty. Try not to keep behaving the way you’ve always behaved. Instead, do something new.
The world isn’t coming to an end, it’s only changing.
Translated by Leah Janeczko
“Have you gathered everything needed for the period of isolation, Lloyd?”
“Certainly, sir. Books, stationery, some fine record albums and various motion pictures”
“What on earth would those be for?”
“For reading, writing and imagining, sir”
“All wonderful things, but they won’t remove the risk of contagion”
“Yet they’ll remove an even greater risk, sir”
“Which would be…?”
“Turning the home not into a fortress but into a prison, sir”
“Long days are ahead of us, Lloyd”
“We shall endeavor to make them worthwhile, sir”
Translated by Leah Janeczko
And amid the silence, immobile like speechless statues,
like trees thunderstruck by their own impotence.
Amid the now useless words,
the information that suffocates us on sleepless nights
Amid hands that cannot clasp
And bodies that cannot touch
You and I shed our clothes like dry leaves and linger here with a smile
Finally together with the others.
Finally bearers of a cross
That makes us equal.
While awaiting the resurrection.
Translated by Leah Janeczko
I have new friends. Well, to be precise, they are acquaintances, but everybody knows that in Rome we are all buddies. Until just last month they were no more than night lights, a neon lit kitchen, figures sitting at the dining table, a shortcut to other people’s lives. And most likely we for them: two apartments opposite each other in twin buildings, both without curtains, close but far, a window show from the courtyard.
Today, when we go out on the balcony during the infinite days of seclusion the space and the formality is no longer present between us. At 6pm we sang together, when we were still singing. We know each other’s names, even the ages of our children and in my mind, I was thinking that when this is all over, I might invite my new friend Nicola and his family over for dinner (without risking a fight at our next condominium meeting). Our walls have grown thinner during these days of quarantine, our lives more transparent. And as we position our smartphones and computers towards revealing bookshelves behind us in preparation for virtual cocktail hour, we may decide that even beyond the apps that we will ultimately have to install, privacy is nice but actually not that important.
And so we rose above
in thought – we peered down at earth
from afar, from what lies
beyond the light. And there was no torment,
from here there was no horror. Only peace
vaster than anything
we could have fathomed, here.
There was salvation as a simple thing:
it was a home, a hand, a name
that we could forget
and therefore regret its passing.
We were about to no longer belong.
Then something brushed our skin,
swiftly sailed beyond us,
distant, and dispersed. It beckoned.
It came from below. From where we know
we go but briefly – as after all
we barely last.
We opened our mouths as though
to speak, to console: “we’re
about to return” – but the voice from here
was a distant muffled pain.
A disobedient prayer.
Translated by Leah Janeczko
Susanna TamaroVa’ dove ti porta il cuore
Winner of the Donna Citta di Roma 1994 prize and an international bestseller, Follow Your Heart is a profoundly moving and beautifully crafted meditation on existence. Driven by her fear of rapidly approaching death, an elderly woman decides to write a long letter to her granddaughter in the form of a diary. Part love letter and part confession, it is the legacy of an old woman finally brave enough to acknowledge that she has repressed her feelings and submitted to convention for far too long. Retelling her life story, she seeks to impart the wisdom that the only worthwhile journey is the journey to find the original voice hidden inside us.