I’m sitting in a loft on the edge of Piazza Amadeo in the early morning hours. The twenty-four hour clock on my phone reads 06:07. A rhythmic creak of a bed frame next-door accompanies the whirl of the street cleaners out my window. Here I am in Napoli, Italia. In a city that is truly home to me. When I lived here twelve years ago, I would introduce myself to strangers not as an American but as a Californian. (There’s a big difference, you know!) My iPhone wallpaper holds a shot of Hana Haus in Palo Alto, California–a place I affectionately call my house. If I could, I would go there everyday. As strange as it sounds, I consider myself equal parts Californian and Napolitana. I wish I could claim New Yorker in there too, but as we all know–that takes ten years of residency to claim. My time there was short.
The funny thing about the familiar is that we can never be an expert in it. As much as we get to know the nooks and crannies, we somehow miss the obvious. The “home” of our family relationships are like that. We know all of the unspokens–the family myths and generational traumas passed down to us and yet, we cannot see some of the basic plot lines of our lives. The consistency of our experiences with others. We’re locked in the confines of our own consciousness.
The journey from Seattle to Napoli took me about 24 hours in total, door to door. I was awake for all of it. Not recommended. Especially after coming off of eight weeks of insane work hours. Coming down to Napoli from Roma, I made the mistake of selecting the regional train in my hurry to grab which ever train was about to leave next. The thing about the regional train, is that what could take you 1 hour in total comfort, takes you 3 hours in a hot house–the only fresh air coming from the windows that still work. Yes, the Mediterranean is gloriously warm in late October. Comparable to California. Not so glorious when you’re stuck in a dingy, packed space. (Image source)
Napoli isn’t just everything–my heart and soul, the rhythm and song of my deepest self. It is a place where I can slip in unseen. The feeling of that is pretty incredible. I blend in. Sometimes, even after opening my mouth and speaking in Italiano, people still think I’m local. Sure, I throw in some guttural, Napoletano abbreviated words in there and that helps. Everyone looks like me; I look like them. My height, complexion. I feel a part of a whole. A historic community, living and breathing in such vibrancy that I love and crave to be more real inside of me. There’s power in that. This the soil of my ancestors–on both sides of my family. This is my tribe, my people.
In my enchantment with fitting in, I had taken on some norms that I became aware of on that oh-so-long and painful train ride. I had bought into the tribalism that I hate so much in the world.
The thing about living a heart-centered, values-driven life is that we have blind spots. Here I am with a bag on the train that literally reads “Race, Injustice & Language in Education” from Stanford Graduate School of Education–the conference I went to last weekend. And with all of the African immigrants and refugees and gypsies are on the train, I feel discomfort. Most Italians feel discomfort. I feel discomfort too. Even typing this makes me sick. I know that you can easily ride regional trains short distances without a ticket and not get caught. I’ve done it in Italy! A lot. But they’re doing it, and I don’t identify with them. The languages they speak aren’t Italian, their smells aren’t Italian cologne and perfume, and the overall way they take up space in the world is different than this place I’ve come to know as home and love. I wanted them to go away so I could be among “my Italians.” Sound familiar? I am horrified in this awareness, but not surprised. My sentiment could be framed in familiar words: “let Italy be Italian again.” (Image source) This isn’t new. If I’m honest, I’ve always felt this way in Italy.
Italians are like this. Humans are like this. Italians will hit the Italian food spots as a rule anywhere they travel, with exceptions of course–but that’s the tribal norm. Humans love affinity and solidarity. It’s the feeling of “home and family” in an intoxicating and deceptive way. Here I am, a champion for inclusion and diversity in America and full of discrimination and all of the recipes for oppression in my own heart and justifying it on another soil. It’s disgusting. It’s there though. That’s real.
At the Seattle Race Conference, as pictured left with me, Sauntia and Angie in 2015–there was a story told about a champion for irradiating institutional racism. The irony was, the storyteller had never met a more sexist individual. Sexist yes, but full-on oppressive when it came to working with women in their community of influence. We always have blind spots in our place of comfort, values and “home.”
In my nostalgia and warm fuzzies about Italy, I came in touch with my own fragility. My feeling of home was fragile and I was protecting it at all costs–even at the expense of my own soul.
There’s this idea of “hypothetical people.” It’s so easy to be annoyed or make blanket statements about hypothetical people. It’s harder to do so if you talk to them everyday, or if they sleep in your bed. The direct relationship makes all of the difference. If I know someone that looks like me, has a life like me, and/or has components of identity that are consistent with my own experience or people I know, I’m more likely to empathize. It’s Sociology 101. Psychology 101. The basics of human interaction and experience.
If I have no relationships with African immigrants or gypsies in Italy, I have no warm fuzzies, no nostalgia–and less capital in my bank account for which to give empathy.
The truth is, the city that I love–Napoli, is the way that it is because of its historic diversity of people groups and gypsies. My Napolitana grandma even called me her gypsy and I took pride in that. The dialect I love so much, Napolitano, as well as the specialty sweets of Napoli, babà and sfogliatella (pictured left, the photo is mine from this trip)–are what they are because of Turkish, Middle Eastern, and North African influence. That’s the truth. Italy has not been a country for long, and Napoli itself has a long history of being a port city. An intersection, a colliding place of people and place. That’s why the skin tones in the south are much darker as well! That’s the skin tone I pride myself in.
A spiritual seeker and musician I love, Jason Upton, says: “False love has the tendency to cut and trap. But real love, divine love, can hold you close and let you go. And it’s the only love that can heal the human heart.”
He shared those words in the middle of a live version of this song, “Love is a Winding Road.”
Love is a winding road
Older than old and hard to straighten
Love is a mystery
It’s got a hold on me and
I just can’t shake it
Love is a dangerous word to those who fear losing control
Love is a wild wind and no one knows which way it goes
Love, it’s a dangerous word
Take a piece of bread and a cup of wine
A common place and a common time
And sit down at the table with love
Love is not far away
it’s a home that stays right where we are Love,
it can let us go,
it can hold us close
It can heal our heart
The bolds are mine in the above. I love those lines. The words push me into a place of freedom–freedom from my own discrimination of others, freedom toward love and peace. Liberation.
In my consciousness on that train, I tried something. Instead of sitting annoyed, disgusted, wanting to shake off the “other,” I tried to be like the girl next to me. She was Italian. She had just kissed her boyfriend goodbye that she’d spent the weekend with and was going back to her town just outside Napoli where she lived. A couple was fighting outside the train, and she turned to me and to the immigrants next to me and chatted it up. She made eye contact equally with all of us. Threw in some passionate humor with it. The ticket man came by and all of us had tickets–contrary to my classist / racist assumptions, and there was peace in our train car. I noticed peace in my soul as I enjoyed our shared humanness. As I sat there in appreciation and rest.
I choose love. Not false love. True love. Its winding road that I’m on even as I type this. I choose that kind of home–that kind of resting place in my soul. I can still be occupying the exact same space, but my interior climate and positioning makes all the difference.
I have work to do. It’s not enough just to change the thermostat, but to understand why the thermostat is set to that default. That’s Psychology 101. That’s why we go to therapy. To take out the roots. I’ve found that I have subconscious and now conscious supremacy of being better-than people–based on my national affiliation with Italy. I look down on other classes and make assumptions based on ethnic origin and signals to class. That’s historic, passed-down. I can undo that. I can be free.
The truth is, we’re tired in life–all of us. Adulthood is exhausting. I don’t have kids, but I hear from those I love that having kids makes it that much more difficult. I recognize we would rather not receive love ourselves than be told we don’t love other people enough. We are all trying to survive, find joy in our day-to-day lives, and “do our best.” All of that is true, but there’s something more for us. There is a better way.
What does love have to teach us right where we are? How can love liberate us? How can we find what it means to truly live by embracing our blind spots?
Let’s participate in our own freedom–toward real love, toward our true home.