Isn’t it wonderful that life is still full of surprises, of the good kind, and that if we stay opening to them we might just surprise ourselves? April 14th was the 4th anniversary of living here year-round, which in itself is surprising. We left home on January 31st2013 ostensibly for a year split between Provence and Tuscany. When the year was up, Joel said the words I’d longed to hear, but never expected: “Why only a year?” And so it was that we came to roost here, on a sheep farm in Tuscany; two old birds flying the coop.
I love the image of a window of opportunity. Most of the time we reside inside our habitual lives, in the house of our minds. Nothing wrong with that if you’re one of the lucky ones who have a good life and a sound mind. Then one day a window flies open, you look up, startled. Maybe even rush to close it and just as you reach for the latch you glimpse the outside world and it beckons you to venture from the safety you’ve work so hard to achieve. You tell yourself, what the hell, if doesn’t work out you can always go back. Maybe we need to tell ourselves that as a form of comfort, because the truth is, you can never go back. You really can’t step into the same river twice.
After celebrating Joel’s birthday in Berlin in March, we returned here, settling back into the easy rhythm of country life. The person close to me who had been ill was recovering and after a bit of an adrenal collapse, I too was back to myself. Spring had not yet arrived but we were enjoying the rituals of cooking, lighting the fire, doing some early pruning and fertilizing in the garden. Yet I kept feeling the urge to find a doctor in London to help me figure out how to strengthen my system.Although I do well with the Italian language and certainly we’ve had only positive experiences with the medical profession here, nonetheless, something was calling me to London.
We looked at the calendar and found a 12 day slot free of commitments and although I had yet to find a doctor I felt confident that the universe would provide. Also, my brother whom I hadn’t seen for 4 years, was turning 80 and a family celebration was arranged for 14thApril and so the window of opportunity widened. My nephew and niece arranged for a private dining room in country inn near Bath and it was agreed that my brother and sister-in-law not be told we were coming.
Some of you may have read, over the 7 years that I have been writing these essays, of the important role my brother played in my early childhood. Although I wasn’t told until I was in my mid twenties that I was adopted, some sixth sense when I was very little had made me feel that my mother really wasn’t my mother. Whereas my brother always felt like my brother, perhaps because he was my sole source of love for the first 8 years of my life, until he left home at 16 to join the army. So, even though we share no blood, or life-style, or belief system he was and always will be my savior. For surely, without the love, laughter and joy he brought to me as a child I would have no proof that love existed.
So, off we went to London town. The flat we usually rent for short stays was unavailable, but an old friend knew of one that was; in the same area and half the price! And, reaching out to all our English friends provided me with two exceptional women, one GP and one Nutritionist/Naturopath, who happened to have available appointments during our stay. I felt as though we were being guided and protected.
The first week was chilly and rainy but the parks and gardens were in full spring bloom; magnolia, cherry and apple blossoms blushing against the grey sky. It’s such a green city, London, and as we stopped and inspected various flower beds and plantings I felt my deep connection to my homeland, a land of green thumbs, the lineage of which I am a true descendent.
We saw friends everyday, walked and talked together, went to theatre and film together, shared great meals and much laughter of the quick, dry English kind, of which I am also a native. And as these experiences accumulated I found myself allowing for an internal window to open up.
In four years of living on a Tuscan farm we’ve experienced the full gamut of life: births, wedding, funerals, illness, injury, creative outpouring, doubt, gratitude and the challenge, as a couple of independent beings, of finding a way to keep that independence in the face of being thrown together, two strangers in a strange land. We committed ourselves fully to life here. Have put down roots, been accepted into the community and made inroads into a language in which we will never achieve the richness we so treasure in our own. Weeks go by during which the only people we speak English with are each other. So there is a certain type of isolation inherent in this adventure. As artists the isolation works well…up to a point. It’s easier for Joel, as a photographer, in that it is a universal language. Anyone can look at his work and know who he is and what he’s achieved. I, on the other hand, as an English writer, am anonymous to a great degree here. No-one we know here reads English.
In this regard, living here is challenging for me. I’ve had to go deep inside and find value in my own void. I think I’ve done pretty well on the whole and certainly I can say that my commitment to my art is unshakeable. What I have come to accept is that if you write, you are a writer. You don’t need permission or recognition to do the thing you are compelled to do. Still, those of us who create art don’t just do it for ourselves; we do it to communicate with others. And so, as we sat over dinners with friends I felt something open within me; a need that I have tried to repress because it can’t be fulfilled in our Tuscan paradise. I’m not finished yet. I still have something to say and ideas galore. And as the days passed I felt the possibility of re-engaging with others, of collaboration, perhaps readings in pubs and book clubs. No, I don’t want to move to London. But I do want to go there more often. I want to feel the comfort of being with my people and exploring opportunities.
On the Saturday we took the train down to Bath where we were met by my nephew and two of his children. It had been agreed that he would pick us up and later in the day my niece would drop us off. They had both joked about how my brother and I would be able to handle saying goodbye to each other somewhere other than a train station platform. Over the many years that I have visited my brother in his and my sister-in-laws house, our conversations stretched as far as the weather and politics, before turning on the TV. There was never any show of intimacy or affection until it was time for me to leave. He always drove me to the station and I would stand by the open window between carriages while he stood on the platform. Then, without fail, just as the train started to move, he would reach through the window, hold my hand and say, “Lovely to see you. Take good care of yourself now.”
On the day of his birthday lunch we arrived first at the Inn, followed by my nephew’s partner and their 3 year-old son, and finally my niece arrived, bringing my brother and sister-in-law. I stood for a long moment watching him as he looked at me in utter shock and then, like two old magnets, we were in each others arms, both of us weeping.
We sat next to each other for the whole lunch, reaching for each other and talking about our childhoods, our parents, our regrets. He told me things I’d never known. Told me he remembered me being brought into the house as a baby and put in the bottom drawer of a dresser to sleep. At one point I looked around the table and realized that while I share not a single drop of blood with anyone, this was my family.
After walking arm in arm through the village we caravanned to my nephew’s house for tea and birthday cake.
And then it was time to leave. We got into my niece’s car and I rolled down the window to wave to the whole family as they stood in the front garden, and there, suddenly, leaning through the open window of the car was my dear brother, reaching for my hand. “So lovely to see you,” he said. “Take good care of yourself.”
Sometimes taking good care of yourself is being willing to go further; to connect with an unfulfilled piece of yourself. Then you look up and watch a window fly open.
With love, Maggie