backstage at calendimaggio

Here’s the thing: some of life is crazy-amazing; some of it’s hard, sad, and confusing; and some of it is just straight-up crazy. That’s why when you see magic happening, you need to call it what it is.

When we planned the trip to Italy, we had no idea that our last night in Assisi coincided with Calendimaggio, the biggest festival of the year. The residents spend all year preparing for this four-day Medieval May Day festival, which is an elaborate, citywide reenactment of 13th Century life in Assisi — produced, directed and acted by residents, for residents.

We knew something important was about to happen when wax-filled tin cans with enormous burlap wicks were placed outside our door earlier that morning. The city’s narrow water pipes were wrapped and tied with dried olive branches, and all street-level lighting was covered in dark cloth. Very mysterious — why the big effort?

abbeyWe went about our day of sightseeing and painting, but when we tried to return to the apartment in late afternoon, we were informed by the police that we couldn’t get back into our apartment for (4 fingers held up) hours, no matter how much we had to pee.

In just four days, we had come to know our neighborhood well enough to backtrack through the piazza and head up through another stone passageway. We carried our market bags up two hundred steps or so, through more cobblestone streets, past the Cathedral of San Ruffino, and down another few sets of stairs to reach our apartment.

As we began packing up our bags for Rome, men appeared in the street outside our door to light the tin can luminaries. When we poked our heads outside, we were amazed to see that all of the city lights had been turned off, and every effort had been made to remove all signs of modern life. It was like we were living in a 13th Century town — the effect was incredible!

Our narrow street was a flurry of activity: people rushed up and down the stairs dressed in Medieval costumes — from ragged-looking serfs to exquisitely dressed royals, barmaids, knights, and monks — all of them, very serious about their roles. Our street had been magically transformed into the backstage for the main attraction in the piazza below.

We hadn’t bought tickets for the performance, so recognizing the opportunity for what it was, I made a big arugula and tomato salad, poured a glass of cold, dry white wine, and pulled a chair outside the apartment door to watch. For more than an hour, we watched the performers running up and down the torchlit stairs from the public stage below to a private stage in the walled garden above us. At one point, they must have been reenacting a brothel scene, and the glowing streets echoed with the sounds of the actors’ cries.

When the plays had ended and the streets were finally empty, all was quiet. The city lights were dark and the torches were still lit, so we looked both ways and whispered, “Let’s go!”

In flickering light, we tiptoed up the steep cobblestone steps and through the narrow passageways, creeping quietly down dark alleys and peering into ancient, walled rose gardens. I felt five and five hundred; new and ancient, at once.

As we made our way down the steps one last time, I gazed up at the starlit sky, marveling at this crazy-amazing life that offered us the gift to wander, unseen, through the streets of a medieval city on the first night of Calendimaggio.

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miracoli di assisi

There is something about Assisi that invokes the miraculous. It’s no wonder that it’s been a place of spiritual pilgrimage for more than two thousand years. The Roman Temple of Minerva (just a minute from our flat) would have perched overlooking the Spoleto valley before the town grew up around it. In German feudal times, walls were constructed over crumbling Roman ruins to create a walled city, complete with two looming medieval castles and graceful cathedrals.

You can see it on the visitors’ faces as they make their way through Assisi’s winding cobblestone streets. The arched doorways and narrow passages give way to steep stairways that beckon to climb higher, higher. And so you go, in search of the view that must have inspired others to walk this same pathway for thousands of years, countless of times before you, just to take in this particular scene…yet somehow, when you round that corner, there is the sense that you are the first to have truly seen it.

The very streets and hillsides of Assisi ring with a collective spirit of wonder.

It is this spirit that led me to search for the perfect hiding place for the last clue in a scavenger hunt — knowing that 30 days from now a dear friend and her daughter will walk the same path to find it. Perhaps it’s also what granted me the Grace to stand inexplicably alone for fifteen minutes in a lower chamber of the Cathedral of St. Francis on a day that was swarming with tourists. In that quiet space, I stood listening to the very fibers of St. Francis’ tunic, quietly communing with the needlework of the followers who lovingly stitched patches over the tears in the rough fabric.

It must be this same spirit that urged another friend to pass along a message which drew me to discover new doorways and answered questions in the walls of Chiesa Nuova. I sat for a full hour gazing at frescos before I felt an urgency to go – now – rushing down the street in the direction of the Basilica of Saint Claire.

photo 1There was another urgent internal voice – stop, here – which led me to a small shop, where I bought a warm shawl on an 84 degree day. I hurried down the sunny street, skirted inside the basilica, and sat in the second row of the Chapel of the Crucifix of San Damiano, just as a nun entered the room and lit a tall candle. As I settled before the ancient, painted cross of San Damiano, the chapel suddenly filled behind me. Within another minute, a voice raised in an angelic soprano, and as the others joined in chorus, I became aware that I had unknowingly walked into a mass offered entirely in song.

I wrapped my new shawl around my shoulders, grateful for the warmth, totally filled up…knowing for certain that if this small miracle could happen for me in this one brief moment, greater ones than this are possible for all of us.

ninety-nine steps

Anyone who’s been to Europe will tell you: “pack light.” It’s advice I agree with on principle, and even as I was packing I was aware that no matter how vehemently I might agree that yes, packing light is the right thing to do, it would never happen.

To be fair, when you’ve been invited to Italy with a painter, it’s expected that you’ll carry your weight in canvas. By the time our flat owner met us at the Assisi train station twenty-three hours, 4 trains (2 US, 2 Italy) one 9-hour flight, a 15-minute run alongside a track to the train going to Perugia (which we made with 2 minutes to spare), and a three-hour train ride later, we were ready to collapse.

As the flat owner and her husband crammed our bags into the tiny car boot, he muttered “molto pesante” (very heavy), and I responded in my messy bras-italliano, “ela è uma pittore.” (Roughly, “She’s a painter.”) They smiled and laughed, and we made our way up the steep hillside to the walled village of Assisi. The car zipped through the narrow cobblestone streets with mere inches on either side of the car, past crumbling Roman walls, olive groves, and medieval cathedrals, higher and higher, until finally, the car stopped in a piazza.

99 steps
The staircase to the flat, Assisi, Italy.

“We stop here,” our host told us.

That was the moment when the error of our ways became back-breakingly clear: this is why you pack light when you travel to Europe. The flat owner pointed up a tiny alley-way, inaccessible by car, and said, “We go here.”

It’s not lost on me that we’re staying a two-minute walk from the very place where legend says that St. Francis threw off all of his clothes and gave up his worldly possessions. I’m feeling similarly inspired – both to travel lighter, and to fully devote myself to this magical place.

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viva l’italia!

Today marks Day One of a thirty-day travel adventure. In about six hours I’ll be boarding a flight for Rome, then I’ll travel by train to the small town of Assisi in Perugia. Once in Assisi, I’ll spend four days wandering, sitting in cathedrals, writing, eating, drinking (“il vino della casa , per favore!”), watching paint dry, and listening to the saints.

After Assisi I’ll return to Rome, where an unanswered question awaits – one that I’ve been aware of since September, but won’t understand until I get there…

If there’s a good story to be told, I’ll scribble it in one of the plain brown Moleskine journals I always carry. Perhaps a few stories will hit the blog, but I’m going to do my best to enjoy life offline so that I don’t miss a thing. I know that I’m one lucky duck to have 30 days of adventure ahead of me, and I’m humbled and grateful.

Tell me a story

While I’m away, tell me a favorite travel story. I LOVE a good story.

SPRING! (+ preparing for a time-sensitive announcement)

“Stay close to any sounds that make you glad you are alive.” – Hafiz

Spring has finally arrived in Philadelphia. If you’re anything like me, you immediately want to throw open the windows for some fresh air, and welcome in all the sounds of spring. For me, the beginning of spring marks a time of enthusiasm and rejuvenation.

In the spirit of new beginnings, I am preparing to announce a very limited number of my brand-new Private Instruction sessions. In my initial offering, I will be conducting live one-on-one instruction sessions.

I’ll make the announcement to those on Viva Institute’s email list on Thursday – and space will be limited – so keep an eye out for that.

Have a great week!

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not everyone’s cup of tea

I was on the phone with a beloved friend this morning – one of those people who I describe as a “critical friend,” because I can always count on her to love me and tell me the truth. I do the same for her.

As we talked about a challenging relationship with her boss, I told her how frustrated it makes me that he doesn’t get her awesomeness. My friend agreed, but then she quickly and honestly owned up to some of the reasons why she might rub him the wrong way. It was a list of the things that she has worked long and hard to come to terms with, things about herself that she nakedly and bravely faces every day — some of the reasons why I love her so much. Then she sighed and said:

“Oh well, I guess I’m not everyone’s cup of tea.”

Not everyone’s cup of tea.

This simple line struck me as an incredibly loving, freeing way to find peace with a difficult relationship. No judgment of self, no judgment of others, just not a match.

There’s an important difference between an attitude of “if you don’t like what you see, then suck it,” and gentle, honest acceptance of yourself and others.

From what I’ve seen, self-acceptance rarely comes without Owning Your Shit first.

Let’s face it — self-examination is exhausting, and so is Blaming Everyone Else. It’s all hard work.

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“You have peace,” the old woman said, “when you make it with yourself.”
— Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven

the unreliable narrator

I’ve been dancing with a new character – a brave, but unreliable narrator. The story was born after a week of tending to the concept of observer of self.

I sat down this morning to capture the moment when the hero discovers that the story he has been telling himself isn’t the Truth. The wolves he’d been keeping at bay were never really there. The prickly exterior he was working so hard to keep polished was, in fact, shielding a soft and tender center.

The reward, of course – which comes in any satisfying story – is that within the juicy center hides an inner strength yet to be revealed. The game is up, the wolves can go home, and the hero goes back to playing Words With Friends … or whatever it is that heroes do during the off season.

When you are already in Detroit, you don’t have to take a bus to get there. – Ram Dass

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wild

The she-wolf bared her fangs and snapped at the queen, rearing up on hind legs. “Be gone, demon!” the queen shouted, and gave a final blow. When the branch hit the wolf, the creature let out a piercing howl and changed into a thick cloud of mist. Before the queen’s eyes, the mist reformed itself into the figure of a young maiden – it was her daughter, Padma.

“Daughter!” the queen cried. “How is it that you have come to be here among all of these wolves?”

Padma smiled. “The wolves are my friends, and the forest is my home.”

That was when the queen understood. The flower of which Rama had spoken was her treasured Padma.

– excerpt from Leigh Hopkins’ book, copyright 2015

a love letter for tough times

This is not a test.

You are not being tested.

No one is keeping score.

You are the expert and the architect;
a loving co-collaborator with the Divine
in a breathtaking play in which you are the star.

You’re head writer, producer, backer and director.
You cry at the sad parts and cheer with the audience
whenever you walk on stage.

Each morning, you oversee character development,
you consider and deliver the punchlines,
you get all the jokes.

You embrace feedback and revel in rewrites.

You scribble down plot twists on the back of your hand because you intimately understand that your character is shaped through adversity, and you thrive the most when you’re wide awake.

This is simply one moment among many in your life’s best work.

Live it like you own it.
Live it like you love it.
Love it with every breath.

This is not a test.

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when people ask me

How do you do it?
how do you
begin
again, and
do it
again?

I tell them honestly: I don’t know.

There’s the temptation
to throw out the baby
pull the drain on the tub
and let the water
run free.

What I do know is what I kept:

stillness
and its sloppy lover, exhilaration.

And peonies –
can you ever get enough?
how tightly they guard
their dark buds
before bursting open
and spilling across the table
in a gorgeous confusion of
the softest pink.

In the very least, I have always counted on this.