Italy, the Sun and the Moon
On the first drive into Umbria, the sun was setting. We saw fields of sunflowers, large squares of bright yellow from a distance, sunflowers turning their heads towards the sun.
From the window of the place where we stayed, we overlooked a valley and the sunflowers down below were often a subject of conversation.
The artist next door explained to us that the sunflowers were a replacement crop, planted where once there were tobacco fields. There were not nearly as many tobacco fields as there once had been in this area; as in the United States, there was some government subsidy to the tobacco field farmer, support for a crop that is not as profitable as it once had been.
The artist explained to us, “the sunflower now is proud and tall, but you will see, before you leave, their heads begin to droop. They look so sad before they are harvested.”
The name for sunflower in Italian is girasole, which is not sunflower, as in English, but the flower that spins with the sun. The sunflower spins for the sun, acres of them. It seeks the sun, spins around to face it, proud and defiant in the early cycle of its growth, but we saw it, not long before we left, the sunflowers dropping over with the weight of their own fullness, fields of them uniform in their sadness. Like the face that appears in a cloud or in the swirl of oil in water, like a chair seen from a distance on the lawn of a house in the moonlight, it was unavoidable interpreting the sunflowers.
There was surely something sad in the flowers drooping in the yellows, facing east in their unmoving expectation of renewal. But by the time we left, the sunflowers had humbled themselves into a new posture, the anthropomorphic sadness was unavoidable, but they could have been read as patient, prayerful even. They were about to be harvested. For all their growing throughout the long days of the summer, this their goal: to give up their seeds, arc towards the ground as the summer days shortened and loaded them up with seeds. They drooped with the weight of their crop, their purpose to produce seeds, the heft of the seeds drawing them down towards the ground. To be bowed with their own fecundity — how is that sad? Still it looked sad, maybe this the harder idea: not sad looks sad, to be stuck with appearances this way playing the heart when the head knows better.
One night we watched the sun set from the balcony of the artist, where he often sat at the end of day, with friends and supper. After the sunset, he jumped up and led us to a small park on the upper reaches of the town to watch the moon rise.
“Oh wait,” he said, after he had locked his door,” he rushed back inside and brought out a large pair of binoculars that he strung around his neck. “My parents asked me what I would like as a gift, so I dragged them to Perugia and found the biggest pair of binoculars I could find,” he said chuckling.
We looked at the moon from the edge of the little park, then we walked down into the piazza for a late cappuccino, glass of wine, gelato for the kids.
To everyone he greeted, I heard the artist chattering in Italian about “la luna” and motioning to his binoculars. It was an event that night, la luna, we went to watch it the next night but it was cloudy, or we missed it, or we went to the wrong place.
The next night was the full moon, and I snuck up to the park at the top of the village for a late night sighting. Someone was there before me, standing next to the stone ledge that runs around the park on the top of the walled town, eleventh century, the best spot in town for moon viewing. I watched from behind, the person at the edge silhouetted against the moon, so large and full and present, myself in the shadows at the other end of the park, we both silently watching, perfectly still, then the person standing at the edge reached out, grabbed the moon, and rolled it across the universe.
On a Mountain
We settled for three weeks on the top of a mountain in Umbria, in a city built in the eleventh century surrounded by a wall. There was stone and brick walkways that all led down to the piazza in the center, where there were several bars and chairs and tables to sit in the evening.
There was a film festival when we first arrived. The directors of the films were often invited and occasionally they showed up. They were given keys to the city, they ate in the nice restaurant with the Sardinian chef, they took their picture there and left it with their autograph at the desk.
Last year, someone received the key to the city and cried. His picture was also displayed at the Sardinian restaurant.
When we arrived, the film festival was in full swing. The films were shown on a giant white screen that had been set up in the piazza. I watched a beautiful Italian film one night. I figured that I would understand the action of the film. The director was there and his style was tight shots of beautiful faces. I watched the entire film and realized that all I understood was that it was about two brothers. That’s all I knew. Maybe it was about two brothers, I wasn’t sure.
Another night, they showed the film East is East which appeared in my home town not long before we arrived in Umbria. It was also a wonderful film, and the director appeared. He received the key to the city. The film was dubbed in Italian, but they also showed two of his shorter films, which showed a great sense of humor and a tender sympathy for the point of view of children.
My friend who travels often to Italy sent me a small Italian cellular phone. I sent the phone number to Ellis, another pal from home. I rarely speak to Ellis when I am home, but when I travel, he calls me almost everyday.
Ellis called and I popped my head out the window of the mountain fortress where we were staying, I looked up at the moon and sent a clear message to the satellite overhead. The sound of our voices shot to the stars above, and surely someone on the other side of the valley was watching me, hung out the window, dangling in the moonlight out the wall of this protected town under the canopy of stars, one of which is the satellite that bounced my voice off its metal and sent it back to Ellis, half way around the world, in an instant.
My wife encouraged me to have a reading of the story, part of which is this story minus the epilogue. I wasn’t ready but I read the story anyway, to my wife, my daughters, and the artist who lived next door and had come to visit.
In the reading, I realized that the story had ended too soon.
I didn’t know you wrote stories, the artist said. I didn’t realize you were so observant.
I was embarrassed, so much of the story was about him, but I realized in the reading that it was about art, I suppose, the making of it, thinking it, performing it, living it. There was more of that in Italy than where I come from.
One day we sat looking at the mountains where walked the saints and mystics of Assisi, San Francesco and his comrades. We sat with new friends in a grove of olive trees from which fine olive oil is made. The mistress of the olive grove pointed up toward the ridge of the mountains, where Francesco walked, and said, “sometimes I sit here and I imagine I see him up there. Is that crazy?”
No, I said, and I told her the story of the Sabbath Queen and how we welcome her every Friday night. “We all stand and turn to the door and bow in the last verse. It’s a love song that sings her to her lover. Do we imagine her? Yes, that is always the point.”
“What is it about San Francesco. . .” she asked.
“Nothing. What San Francesco had was nothing and it’s the very thing everybody wants. His power was the power of nothing.”
We had lunch and discussed literature and art. There was an architect, a singer, a painter, all of them knew a great deal about American writers in addition to their own artists.
My wife mentioned that I write. “Oh yes?” They all said. “What do you write?”
“Stories,” I said.
“How wonderful, what kind of stories?”
They wanted me to read one of my stories and I realized that I spend a month, sometimes a year where I come from, and no one asks, not once, for one of my stories. At home I am often shy about bringing up a passage from a story that I have written, though I think of them often.
Still, I missed my home, and I felt a little like an expatriot story writer in Italy, and though I didn’t miss the secrecy of writing stories at home, I missed the collusion with the few people I know with whom I talk nothing but stories.
To one of those people, I sent a note care of the cafe where we frequent in my home town. In the note I described a coffee house I visited in Rome, where Keats, Lizst, Shelley, Byron sat and drank coffee, not far from their famous house, a pink house, near the Spanish steps. Now the coffee house is mostly a tourist place, but I could still feel the presence there of something beautiful, and exciting, and risky.
When I visited the famous coffee house in Rome there was a man sitting by the door, with a pink tie and a pink kerchief in his pocket that was much too large for his cream jacket, posing next to another gentleman who sat at a table and painted. It may have been all that is left of the former glory of this wondrous place, but I enjoyed it anyway. I loved it. I wrote about it.
james stone goodman