Meditation is something on which I should rely. After all, I’m a neurotic Italian American mother. I worry about my family, health, money, work, and what we’re going to eat for dinner. My brain never shuts off.
Many people can relate, not just Italian Americans. However, when we say, “family,” it usually extends to grandparents, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, your mother’s third cousin on her father’s side, who you call zio, and all the rest. The pressure to succeed, to have enough money to support the family (whoever needs your help), to work harder than everyone else, and to constantly feed each other literally and figuratively can be downright overwhelming.
As a child, my father insisted we take Tae Kwon Do classes as a means of learning self-defense. One of the first tasks we had to take on was “clearing our mind” and meditating. The master had us sit “criss-cross-applesauce” style on the floor of the gym. We had to put our hands palms up on our knees and breathe deeply. Then, we had to think of nothing at all.
Even back then, I could not grasp the concept. There was too much stuff taking up space in my mind back in elementary school. Things have only gotten more cluttered up there ever since. In fact, now that I’m 40, I’d need a big rig to haul out everything taking up space in my brain. I probably have one whole quarter of it focused on whether to make eggplant or zucchini for the side dish for lunch tomorrow at any given moment. Forget about all the space occupied with worry about affording a college education for my son.
In any event, Mother Nature can sometimes help me at least make a little room for peace up in there. This little video that I posted on Instagram is an example of one of those moments. It’s from summer 2018, and I suddenly realized that the sound of the waves in Ischia, which is off the coast of Naples in Italy, was calming. I recorded it, so I could have a slice of meditation, which always seemed impossible. Nowadays, whenever I need peace, I can let the waves wash over me, even if only in my mind.
Leonardo da Vinci was a true Renaissance man. He was an inventor, painter, sculptor, scientist, architect, and mathematician. Certainly, his work was complex. Life, during any era, is complicated. Perhaps, that’s why da Vinci recognized the importance of simplicity.
This image of a red touring bicycle leaning against the railings overlooking the sea in Ischia, Italy speaks to that message. In an era of hot cars and roaring trucks, a bicycle is simple. In a time when everyone is throwing themselves into the rat race, people wading in the sea or sunbathing on a rock are the picture of simplicity.
Truly, that’s what the sweet life, especially on an island, is all about. What has been devastating to me in recent days is how Mother Nature has attacked that simplicity. The earthquake that took down homes and a church in Casamicciola in Ischia is one example. But now I am watching the decimation of islands all across the Caribbean and Florida Keys, not to mention cities in Florida, all the victims of Hurricane Irma.
Still, there is beauty to be found in this tragedy. Neighbors helping neighbors, political leaders on different sides of the aisle coming together to support victims, the deer and birds roaming among the debris in the Keys are all reminders of peace. They are all part of that simplicity that island life usually brings to people. As a result, you can feel the hope in your being.
Granted, a storm that causes this much devastation causes stress. None of these islands are immune to stress, especially at this time. But Mother Nature giveth and Mother Nature taketh away. In this moment, she has taken away but the giving is just around the corner. A bit of sunshine and some elbow grease may go a long way to making a comeback. The islanders know their vulnerability. But they realize their strength more.
A quiet beach is a sanctuary. In the evening in Ischia, when all the chairs are closed and the sand is cleared of debris, you walk. You might even dip your toes in the sea. The night breeze tickles your face and whips your hair. You squeeze the hand of your beloved. Or pull your shawl close to you. Along with clear beach, your mind clears. Looking out into the darkness of the sea, you recognize that everything is bigger than you. For a moment, you feel as though you have been swallowed whole. Then, you look down at your feet. They are dug into the sand and the tip of a wave splashes them. Things begin to come into focus.
Now, You Can Think
All around you is peace. This is your chance to get lost in your thoughts. You can focus on whatever issue is of the utmost importance in that moment. Maybe in the still of the beach you will find answers. Most importantly, by spending this time with yourself, you will better understand who you are. Maybe you’ll figure out what meaning life has for you.
Island life stands still. The ocean waves crash onto the shore. It renders everything else – perhaps, most of all, the people – motionless. The scalding sun beats down on them like the rhythm of a Metallica drum. So, the cool waters lure them like the sirens of Greek mythology. When they have had their fill and they return to the shore, they sleep. It’s a deep rest brought on by the soothing lullaby that is the sea.
Visions of floating green hills and crisp blue skies visit their dreams. When they awake, they are met with a pink and orange sunset, the type you’d imagine described in a romance novel. The perfume of roses and bougainvillea hangs in the air. Indeed, you don’t have to stop to smell flowers. They hit you right in the face. They’re intoxicating. As day turns to evening the breeze forces the beach babes to cover their bronzed, oiled skin. But a bit of beach remains in their locks well into the night. Any suitors who approach will surely take it all in. More intoxication.
Crazy Time on the Island
Night and day, it all runs together. Visitors lured by the island’s charms find they sleep until noon, eat dinner at 10 at night, and frolic well past dawn. While that may seem like madness under normal circumstances, it perfectly suits them on the island. When the sun rises and they still find themselves on the main drag, steps away from the beach, they think nothing of it. It’s as though this happens all the time. No matter they stole a kiss from someone they barely know. Or danced on a pole. Or went topless on the beach. The heat, the surf, the endless beauty all around them make it natural and therefore acceptable.
For the tourist, this is fine and well. What happens on the island is the stuff of a locked journal. It’s an adventure to be cherished but not oft repeated or discussed. For the native, the island’s charms, which bring them livelihood, could very well kill them. Where the tourist welcomes lazy days and wild nights, the native must avoid both. Yet, the scent of the sea, tremendous heat, and unavoidable tan flesh has the power of hypnosis. If they are not careful, they can be dragged into an eternal spring break. Responsibility be damned.
Even if they manage to unwind themselves from the tentacles of the island, the stillness can get them. Or at least it’s a murderer of their ambitions. Those who stay, perhaps find comfort in the known. A few rise above on the home shores and find success running a restaurant or hotels or stores or entertainment venues. Or they become professionals, the type of people every society needs. There’s definitely a simplicity to island life, and the appeal is easy to understand. It’s that sense of security that keeps college grads behind the bar serving drinks and 50-year-old sons clutched in mamma’s arms.
In the Little Pond
Of course, the smallness of the place keeps everyone contained. They are confined to the labels they long ago inadvertently agreed to don. And they are kept at a distance from the outside world. It is feet they must walk and not miles. So, they play their roles. Some play them well. In fact, many find contentment in this smaller life on an island. Others remain like stiff sand sculptures unable to break free, suffocating. What is ironic is also sad; the very beauty of the island, what draws visitors to it, is the poison that can keep some of the natives from ever moving.
Nonetheless, every now and then, the sun peeks out from the trees. The crashing waves wakes up the mind and stirs the soul. That’s when the native fights the heat and pushes the stillness. And that little world spins and spins. Then, something remarkable happens. There is movement, there is life, even for the original dwellers. Finally, tourist and native alike get to reap the rewards.
MAMMA’S DIARY – DIARIO DI MAMMA / FAMILY TRAVEL – VIAGGI
An Ischia Italy beach day can change the way you think. The intoxicating scent of the sea lures you like the sirens of Greek mythology. When you first squish your toes into the hot, soft sand, you think you’re walking on fire. So, you get your ballerina on and tip toe, tip toe, tip toe to a lounge chair. A tall, dark teenager leads you to the perfect spot nearest the sea. Exhale.
Your son is ready to jump in. But you’re l’Americana. So, you first cover him in cream and sheathe him in a rash guard. Then, you warn him of the dangers of going too deep. You tell him to stay close to his father and never go past the buoys. Just then, your husband whisks away your baby and takes him past the buoys. Inhale.
Who cares? You’re at the beach…on an island…in Italy. Pull up a lounge chair. Exhale.
Other children are running in the sand. Or they’re trying to catch waves. A few are making rocks dance on the water. An Italian mamma in a skinny bikini is bouncing a naked baby on her hip. She covers him with a blanket in the hopes that the sound of the sea will help him drift off to sleep.
Teenagers are finding excuses to climb on one another, forming human pyramids in the sea. They are young and pretty and seem to know it. Bronzed and carefree, they are like the personification of hedonism. For a moment, you are both nostalgic for your own youth and jealous you never experienced being a native of an island. Then, they topple and crash onto one another with a thunderous flop. Suddenly, you recall that youth truly is wasted on the young. And the island limits where you can go. Next, one or two of the young couples steal a salty kiss. You lean back and the mind wanders.
These are not the youth of your America. They are distinctly different. Italian children are less tame, far less controlled. Many of the babies – boys and girls alike – are nude. They splash and pee with wild abandon. Little girls as old as 8 wear no bathing suit top. An American lawyer I know once visited and would not allow his wife to photograph the beach for fear it would be considered child pornography Stateside.
Still, one of the little girls toddles over to your son and asks to borrow his shovel for building palaces and pools in the sand. He gleefully obliges. A friend for a moment is better than none at all. Despite the language barrier, they get along well. Pointing and hand gestures work. And they look at each other in wonderment.
Then, of course, the place is teeming with adults. The amount of flesh on display takes some getting used to for those of us from comparatively puritanical America. The natives, in fact, mock your one-piece bathing suit and shorts. You once wore skimpier swimsuits. But now you’re a mamma of a certain age. You like your cover up covering up things. Of course, the damage the sun can do is another excuse – err, reason – to hide skin. But the sun is life in Italy.
So, natives have a different take. Some of the men, especially the older ones, still wear speedos. It’s hard to avert the eyes. The image of a banana hammock burns into your memory much like Vesuvius at Pompeii. More modern men wear a regular bathing suit. Of course, theirs are shorter than yours. This is not the place for board shorts. While Jersey Italians are spraying on their tans, Italian Italians are doing it old school. They drench themselves in sun. Many still use oil. They shimmer like diamonds. Nearly naked diamonds. They jeer you for your milky white skin and 50+ sunscreen. Don’t even get them started on your kid’s rash guard and long swim trunks.
Even the nonne (grandmas) wear two-piece bathing suits. Many don bikinis that leave little to the imagination. Let’s just say you are seeing more than just the cheeks on their faces. The foreign women are even less reserved than the Ischitani. Finding tan lines intolerable, they go topless. Some are old and wrinkly. Others are young and perky. They all take your breath away.
Ischia Makes You Feel Sexy
Even among those who work on the beach – delivering drinks or renting umbrellas – there’s a casualness. It’s as though the heat makes it all right to be in various stages of undress. While closing your eyes, you have a revelation; what’s beautiful is the acceptance of all shapes and sizes. Because it’s hot, everyone can uncover herself. It’s permitted. There’s a freedom that comes with this acceptance. Removing shame of the flesh is actually empowering in a way. But your Americanness prevents you from fully appreciating it. And you can’t bear showing too much of yourself in Ischia. It takes a kind of courage you’re not sure you have.
An ad once suggested Ischia was where you eat, you drink, and you “whistle.” The latter is in quotes because it is a euphemism for sex. Some, however, say it just points to the laid-back vibe of the island. The heat and scent of the sea and all that natural beauty certainly have their influence. You’re suddenly lightheaded. You notice your husband swinging your son into the sea for one more run. The sunlight is bouncing off his curly locks. Sure, he’s gotten older as have you. But his midlife paunch and a few gray hairs don’t change the fact that his green eyes are twinkling. He’s Italian. He’s yours. And he’s friggin’ sexy.
When he comes over and brushes your hand as you offer him his towel, you still feel electricity. It’s time to head for the restaurant on the beach, just behind you. Tonight your son demands a chicken cutlet and fries. And you’re having linguine and clams. The Ischia sun is setting in the background. The sea breeze lightly caresses your face. Your husband gives you the look. And your son begins to fall asleep in your lap while twirling your hair. It is the end of a perfect day.