03 March 2011, Train from Pontremoli to Pisa, Italy
When life is lived completely openly, Heaven on this Earth of ours shows itself in everyday life, in small villages and in breathtaking grandiosity, in the colors of the rainbow and in the blackness of a moonless night, in the face of new love and in the tears of a broken heart. Or in the train conductor, who offered me a throat lozenge to soothe my bitterly raw throat, without any knowledge of my three-week walking illness. Another glimpse of the greater gift awaiting our submission.
So was the man in the otherwise-empty station who mysteriously appeared with change when the ticket kiosk had closed for midday, assisting me at a machine that operated beyond my ability to reason. And it is in my lovely Maria, the Polish cook can laugh and cry at the same moment.
When open, one is an airway through which a breeze can sweep, through which light can illuminate his sacred path. But when one is dense, preoccupied and stayed, the wind of change and of wisdom is met with resistance, fighting against a firmly planted mud wall of a being.
In the absence of complicated language, smiles and hands fill in holes where words could only fail. Words, spirit thieves of the modern world, abbreviated literal statements void of heart and shy of depth that comes from trying so earnestly to communicate… I love being a foreigner. And I love looking like a Russian, or a Spaniard, or a Swede… I could be anyone, and I don’t dare lose my seat in the front row of life by offering the shallowness of an identity. Identity travels in the company of opinion.
An open heart receives but never asks. An open mind learns with little effort. One without greed lives entirely in abundance, seeing and feeling more glory than the dense or tarnished could ever know. Behind the conductor’s smile, beyond his grimy teeth, a lifetime on the tracks burnished like hot cinders, a subtle yet passionate locomotion, with passing landscapes of blessed day after blessed day. Are Italians a joyous people, or merely mirrors of my hungry soul? I have yet to encounter anger, contempt, or even mild disdain. If they are merely masks I see, they are worn well, an airtight fit I can only wish I could export.
Nothing excites me like the sun’s play through darkish clouds, dotting the hilltop villages along the way, or snowy peaks that stand watch over terraced olives and domiciles, freshly-mined marble for sale at roadside stands, and backyard vineyards and vegetable gardens tended according to the moon cycle by old-time farmers who live forever free of technology. The soil is rich with life, either atop a fertile hillside, or in a modest plot beside the electric railway. Living from what exists is the life of an Italian, and not just a city-dweller’s retirement fantasy. An 80ish-year-old woman prunes her garden as the train whizzes past, while her neighbor down the way fights the wind to tie a grapevine, wiry grey hair scraping against a weathered cheek. I want so badly to shout out:
“I am alive with YOU beating within my chest… my heart is singing your songs!”
This is life. This is the land. There are no questions, only unspoken pathways.
The conductor is seated beside me now, pointing out vineyards and trees, marble and granite. I want to cry, but instead I tremble. He has come to see the photo I took of him earlier, and has yet to leave that seat. But I don’t mind. In fact, I love it. The only adverse party is Lincoln, whose explosive bark from within his carrier box sends the conductor into orbit before he settles back in, canine barrier established just outside Massa Station. There is room for all three of us in my little quadrant with cobalt blue headrests, and the conductor charms me further with his suggestion that I ride the old-time train Garfagnana that still runs on gasoline. His passion for the railroad twinkles in his eyes, most enchanting in the golden afternoon sunlight.
Marble garden sculptures and palm trees mark our arrival at the seaside, the gusty mountain climate only mere miles behind giving way to magnolia trees and artichokes in the setting Mediterranean sun. Of course there is graffiti in places along the tracks, an abrupt departure from warm shades of stucco and the early appearance of daffodils. But how offensive really is “figlia di puttana” in the grand scheme of things? Not really violent. Not really gangsta. A man speaks softly into his mobile phone, but the voice on the other end is completely audible, even three quadrants from mine. Another reads the news. Three beautiful women chat about a workshop on positive thinking. It seems there is a protective layer preventing utter jadedness, leaving manners and respect neatly in tact. A team of three Nigerian umbrella salesmen enters the car and sits behind me, loudly, without the frightfully shifty vibration of repute. In fact, only moments later, one of them is seated beside me where the conductor once charmed. He interacts with his friends behind us and Lincoln doesn’t seem to mind. White laughing teeth against satin skin in the golden light only exacerbate my shame.
Oops. I guess they have been misbehaving after all, in a most civilized way, because the conductor is back, but not to fight for my honor and reseat beside me. With a smile on his face the conductor is removing the lot of them, their failure to pay for the train ride a common offense in any country. It is the most genteel quasi law-enforcement scene imaginable, a smile for four others back, and even an “arrivederci.” No great threat to public safety, civilian crime is managed seamlessly.
Long shadows decorate the platform with human exclamation points in pom pom hats punctuating the texture of Pisa S. Rossone Station. The conductor is back to remind me that the next station is mine. I won’t have to miss him, because I am taking him with me. I continue collecting the faces of those I wish to become, fragments of a collective Self that will one day wash up like colored sea glass from this glorious life of mine.