I’ve shut down to do spring cleaning of the soul.
It started with the visit to the Grotta Giusti, with a descent into the Dantean Paradiso, Purgatorio, and Inferno of the spa’s chthonic chambers. The caves wind down into the center of the earth (of course!), lit by spots that throw monstrous shadows on the corrugated walls and ceiling. The footing is slippery and slick from the drip of condensation and the hundreds of slippered feet shuffling this way the last one hundred-and-fifty years. It’s nothing as dramatic or terrifying as the Carlsbad Caverns of New Mexico, which are petrified and crystallized into the negative of premillennial pounding surf. There are also no bats.
There is a kind of strange mold growing on some of the rock faces, probably stimulated by the weak photons emanating from the electric lights. At either end there is a deep well of brilliant blue water whose surface is disturbed at very long intervals by a drop that slowly forms until it grows too heavy for whatever forces hold water molecules together, detaches from the ceiling, and lands with a solid plop. Wooden folding chairs are set at various intervals for those wishing to meditate or collapse. I did so in “Inferno,” tucking myself into the antique chaise longe that was most deeply set into the overhang so that I was cocooned with porous rock. A large clock faced me. I propped my feet up on a low stool, thoughtfully provided, leaned back, and closed my eyes. The heavy canvas robe felt protective on my bare skin. The hood fell low over my eyes, and my hands, tucked deep into opposite sleeves, were as secure as the arms of a lunatic in a straitjacket.
The silence seemed complete. The electric clock – unlike the one in my kitchen in Il Pianerottolo — did not click. The air felt heavy and exceptionally soft, soothing, and filled with something I couldn’t really identify. Bit by bit sounds began to emerge out of the silence. A slight creak of the chair joints. A distant drip, drip, drip. The surf sound that’s always inside my ears. The thump, thump, thump that turned out to be my heart doing its work. A light stirring sound, that might have been air shifting microscopically as someone entered the grotto a half mile away. I felt myself — my “Self “– slipping away layer by layer and swirling gently into something soft, warm, glowing and dark at the same time, and profoundly restful. I don’t know how long I was in that state before the sound of someone sitting down beside me brought me out of what I now know was a profound trance. That was the start of my journey of spring cleaning.
The linfodrenaggio (or lymphatic draining) treatments stirred things up physio-chemically. Italian spas use the German Vodder method, which is somewhat more aggressive than the very light touch that I’m accustomed to. Things began to move around and flow through my body. Fawn then unpacked her kit of crystals and got to work at either end of Domenico’s memory retrieval exercise. I am, it turns out, quite suggestible. I really hadn’t seen myself years ago as someone who would go in for all this sort of “processing” . I would have brushed it aside as “woo woo” New Age delusion. Now I’m not so sure. There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
For years I’ve had a sharp pain between my shoulder blades, where wings might have sprouted on an angel. It feels as a knife is being plunged and twisted. This is the pain I’ve known since childhood, when I would lie in the darkness of the crib in which I slept until the age of five, listening to the rise and fall of my parents’ voices in the kitchen or — once we had more than just the kitchen and the bedroom — in some other room of the apartment. First their voices were a hum, alternating between the deep baritone of my father and my mother’s soft contralto. Then the baritone swelled and rose in volume and resolved into a sharp clap of thunder. That was the signal for the fusillade to follow: an increasingly violent, percussive series, spitting out rage, words filled with “rrrrr’s” , rhetorical questions extorting from my mother — futile, mollifying replies, filled with tears and imploration. The night thickened around me and I lay rigid, listening to the volley. My father’s accusations my mother’s incoherent explanations, father’s challenges, mother’s timid solutions, each exchange inflaming him to greater fury, fueling his wrath and — I now know, but then felt with the child’s profound wisdom — his tragic sense of helplessness, his grief and protest against a world opposing his will at every step and turn, intractable to his desires and his own life plan. What could my mother do in the face of such despair? What could he do but rail against the gentle woman he had wooed, pursued to death’s door, and married and loved as he loved his own soul? The pain in my back grew white-hot, my arms and legs ached with the strain of trying to make it all stop, make them stop and realize that the answer was not in turning against each other, but in agreeing that yes, the world had let them down, big time, and left them with only their brains, hands, and love to shape their tiny piece of the universe into Eden.
It never happened that I made them stop. I don’t know, really, or don’t remember, how those violent explosions suddenly ended. The silence that followed was even more terrifying. I was afraid they had died; that someone had died. Then the sound of my mother’s weeping came to me. I was relieved to hear her cry. I was relieved to hear her cry. Her quiet sobs of despair came to me as a happy sign that she was alive. And the knife turned in my back. Where were my father’s tears? Had he used them all up in his anger? Had his despair burned away in the auto-da-fé of his wrath? Pity for them both ringed my eyes, but I didn’t cry, not then, in my crib, not twenty years later, at 560 RSD, when the ritual continued to repeat itself, always with the same impact on me, until December 28th, of the year before he died, when my father’s titanic rage took him to the psychiatric ward of St. Luke’s Hospital.
I left home and chose to move 2,978 miles west to insulate myself from the rhythm of these outbursts and the knife in the back.
When, in 1980, I met the man who would become the father of my daughter, he took me, on our first date, to see a film called “A Knife in the Head” (1978 Messer im Kopf, dir. Reinhard Hauff, starring Bruno Ganz).
Intuitively sensing the spot where my soul pain centered, my mother would quiet my unstoppable crying fits, brought on by not getting my way, by turning an invisible lever in my back, between my shoulder blades. I realized this connection when Fawn did her third “treatment.”
My sleep, this week, has been wretched. The April rains have come, and with them, an insidious damp cold that these thick stone walls and tile floors amplify. The paths across the fields are liquid mud. When I walk the dog, my rubber boots collect huge chunks of Tuscan clay and I drag them through the tall grass to clean them. THe clay is so heavy it pulls my boots clean off my feet. I need a brisk walk to get the blood flowing and fire up the inner furnace.
In my sleep, my mouth falls open. My teeth dry out and the lining of my mouth turns into sandpaper. My bones and joints ache. My dreams turn this into a crippling weakness that make it impossible for me to walk. I struggle to get to the lecture hall to deliver a lecture on a topic I prepared years ago. I think it’s in my laptop, which I left where? In my office? in the lecture hall on the podium? It’s an agony to drag myself from one place to another, to fumble with keys, squinting in the dark and groping to insert the key — always the wrong one — into the lock. Students have read the lecture from my laptop, and no one wants to listen to me deliver it. I have no microphone and my voice is barely audible to me. Evaluators are sitting in the far corner, grading my performance. I am washed up. Done. Put out to pasture. I can barely walk out of the building, more ancient than the ancient mother of a colleague who, in the meantime, has parlayed her position into a promotion, a luxe apartment with a chef, a maid, and a dozen perks. I meet up with the “man in my life” and he mocks me in my decrepitude and tells me all those “quality women” he’s been meeting and dating have pushed me out of his life. I see my father’s handsome profile somewhere in all this and am suddenly sad because I know, in my dream, that one day he will die. I have nowhere to sleep. Someone’s relative was given the bed in my room and now the sheets are filled with stray black hair and damp with his sweat. The balcony, shaped like a walnut-shell, takes up most of the small house. There is nowhere to store the pieces of Lego’s and ToyMobiles my daughter’s collected that I must put away. Too many stairs. Should I fly to Chicago and buy a skirt set? I can’t walk. I can’t talk. No one wants to love me. I get up six or seven times in the course of this miserable night, each time to pee, drink water, and collapse back into bed. This is my psychic equivalent of picking the splinters and slivers of past traumas out of the living soul.
How many more nights like this before my soul’s house is in order?