Writers attend workshops and retreats for various reasons. Some wish to hone their skills of description or dialogue, others are seeking inspiration or direction, and then there are those of us who have something to explore within ourselves—something too difficult to sort through with our morning coffee while retaining a smiling face and carefree demeanor.
When I accepted Justen Ahren’s invitation to join his Monastic Writing group studying in Italy, we both knew I was part of the latter category. My inward journey would be much more difficult than the procession of planes, trains, and taxi cabs I would need to arrive at the base of the cliff which had long protected the residents of Orvieto.
“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” –Nelson Mandela
A week in a medieval Italian hillside village of artisans, wine makers, divine architecture, Cathedrals, Italian food, all to be enjoyed during the spaces between writing class and reflection. Delightful!
Boarding the funicular—a tram of sorts crawling up the steep sheer cliff-face to the ancient town—I sat at an angle trying to see over the edge across the vineyards and groves of olive trees before we ascended into the tunnel. For a minute, I thought I saw him—my father—sitting at the base of the turnstile waving goodbye. I had felt his presence with me nearly every day since his death when I was eleven.
Talking to the other passengers—especially the one I had just discovered was another member of our retreat—I tried to ignore the feeling of separation from him. He seemed to be saying, “You have to do this alone kiddo. I’ll be right here when you get back.”
A bus picked us up at the end of the funicular’s jaunt and completed the climb to the very top of the hill, squeezing through tight corners scraped by the previous mirrors and sides of trucks too large to fit through the narrow alleys.
“When you reach the top, that’s when the climb begins.” –Michael Caine
When we exited, there was no doubt as to our being at the right place. The famous glittering, golden-faced Duomo commanded the piazza, and every eye within its visibility. Soaring skyward in the front, its sides in long rungs of greenish-black basalt and white travertine, it held a thousand stories within the sculpture-topped crevices of mosaics.
The Hotel Duomo had to be nearby. Slipping around to the striped-side of the cathedral, we spied the awning announcing its presence, and strolled into an adventure which began with a welcome reception of charcuterie at a local trattoria. Sitting around wine-barrel tables, we got acquainted with each other and the famous Orvieto Classico, a white wine made from grapes grown in the soft tufa, limestone, and volcanic soil! Then we moved on to some serious dining at a restaurant nearby.
Being in Umbria in early November, truffles—tartufo in Italian—were abundant. I could barely wait to dig into that first meal of gnocchi with spinach, bacon, and of course, truffles! (As the week progressed, my dining would include pizza with prosciutto and truffles, pork ragout over polenta, stuffed zucchini blossoms, sausage with artichokes, steak and salad, and even a wonderful sandwich of brie and prosciutto on freshly baked bread, and a chocolate pyramid with ground hazelnuts. There wasn’t a bad meal to be had in Orvieto, especially the night we convinced Chef Lorenzo Polegri at the Zeppelin Restaurant to give us a dining experience we wouldn’t forget. Read about it here if you haven’t already.)
My room at Hotel Duomo—206—also had a name: Simone Mosca! And it was surprisingly quiet to be just around the side of the church. I feared the bells would keep me awake, but they didn’t bother me at all. And the huge windows could be tilted in or rolled open so that the view would be unfettered. I adored it, the tile roof lines sloping toward me, and the cobblestone street below which was often the setting for nuns walking past, or a Vespa chugging along.
Forget everything you have ever heard about European breakfast options of bread and coffee. Breakfast at Hotel Duomo was wonderful. Every cup of cappuccino was made fresh, capped with a serious head of steamed, frothy milk. Anything I could possibly want was on the bar; boiled eggs, salami, ham, cheeses, croissants, toast, cakes, cereals, yogurt, and fruits—namely tiny clementine oranges so fresh the leaves were still attached.
Coffee! Chocolate! I was thinking I could handle this kind of suffering. Not too painful so far.
Even the first day of writing prompts wasn’t especially emotional. We set our intentions for the week. What did we want to achieve? Here’s what I wrote: “My intention for the week is to release the fear resulting from the exposure of my work to the written obvious page.”
Initially, sharing was easy. Justen gave great prompts and our group was very productive, needing little incentive to delve into our responses. He was also quite clever, easing us gently into harmony with one another and it worked. Tiptoeing into the shallow end of the writing pool, I didn’t realize how deep the water was getting until it was over my head.
It happened on the second full day. Mist hung like snow clouds, obliterating the view from the top of the cliff. Even the heavens seemed to be saying, ‘Don’t look, Renee.’
Justen took us into the Duomo to write. Ancient and adorned with paintings, sculptures, mosaics, relics, stained glass, it existed so fully I could almost hear its breath. Centuries of exaltation, grief, spirituality, life, death, art, undulated in the sacred atmosphere of the church.
I felt a symbiotic sense of unity with the Cathedral, as if I was writing in its womb, birthing a creation I had been gestating for many years. Was it the beautiful, soft music? The altar I was sitting in front of? The sparse ribbons of light cascading through stone shaved so thinly it looked like stained glass? The sculpture of Christ lying in his mother’s arms after the Crucifixion, his limp hand pointing toward me?
There are some things even a writer can’t find the words for. There are some things that we become writers in order to make sense of. I knew internally that somewhere between these two statements, a place existed where I would one day release a grenade of emotions onto paper and let it absorb the resulting shrapnel from the exploding shards of my memories. That place was the Duomo in Orvieto, Italy.
As we gathered back together in a circle of chairs which the church officials had agreed to let us assemble, Justen saw the tears in my eyes and patted me on the shoulder. Looking away quickly, I didn’t want him to know I was crying. I didn’t want anyone to know. When something has been locked away in the dark for a long time, there is a lot of fear and resistance to shining a light on it. The eleven-year-old inside of me couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t let myself become that vulnerable. It was about to get worse.
Renee Johnson and Justen Ahren in Orvieto, Italy
Back at the hotel, sitting in what would become our usual spot, it was time to share. There had been two prompts. Both had brought up images and emotions so well-hidden and disguised I barely knew what to do with them when they surfaced. Freshly wounded, the thought of speaking the words was too traumatic.
First round, I passed. Second, I passed.
“Again?” Justen asked.
I knew he only wanted to encourage me, but I couldn’t do it. The group rallied around me.
The next day, painful memories from other participants were shared and with their tears, my cowardice became evident. I started to break. Slowly, I peeled away one layer at a time, giving small vignettes to Justen—one very painful one about what I was experiencing. He gently reminded me that I had achieved my intention; to release my fear about seeing the words on the written, obvious page. I had confronted them and they had not destroyed me.
Time passed quickly. Days of writing all over Orvieto—in bustling piazzas,
with villas and vineyards below us, an outdoor garden space, inside dining room, staring across the moss-laden Etruscan tombs,
as well as inside the Duomo—eating, walking in the rain,
in and out of old Cathedrals,
glancing over foggy vistas,
shopping for small things I could bring back in my carry-on luggage, tasting wines and
freshly-pressed olive oils,
lighting candles for loved ones beneath fading frescoes, touring ancient grottos, peering into wells,
walking backward through time in archeological digs with unearthed shards of the relics in one place and a reproduction of what it would have looked like beside of it,
getting to know my new friends, climbing to the top of the Clock Tower,
meeting Geppetto at the Magic Shop, shown here with Jarita Davis**,
waiting out a rainstorm after a mad dash beneath a portico,
sitting on a bench in the piazza outside of the Duomo staring at the glittering face of her beauty.
We wrote every day for three hours, had afternoons free to explore, and would come back together around 7:00 pm for dinner. Sometimes we would share a piece we had written before we set off for another dining experience. It was during one of these times I announced what I intended to read—the piece about the day of writing in the Duomo—the piece about the darkness following my father’s suicide. I can still see Justen’s enormous, surprised eyes in my memory. Would I be able to do it? Would I cry?
“Courage is grace under pressure.” –Ernest Hemingway
I wouldn’t say it was easy. It wasn’t. But it didn’t annihilate me. I didn’t cry, though I thought I was going to. Suddenly, I wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed by my emotions, even the dark ones. Another of the participants had chosen to read a letter she had written on healing. Quietly, she passed it to me after sharing her very thoughtful advice.
“There are no coincidences.” –Jarita Davis
Near the end of the trip, our wonderfully expressive hotelier, Mr. Massaccesi, graciously agreed to give us a tour of his private cantina in the grotto beneath the hotel. One of the highlights of the entire trip for me was watching Jarita as she translated for him. He became so animated in his story his speech became quicker and faster and Jarita was no longer thinking about the words or even their meanings, just doing a side-by-side translation standing on a ledge beside of him. It was brilliant.
“Il mondo é nato qui,” he said.
“The world was born here,” Jarita translated. I believed him.
At the end of the journey, we all wrote a little note to each other, predominantly about what we appreciated most in the writing shared with the group. And I kept a journal of the entire experience, including my favorite thoughts from the participants. Justen said this to me the morning after I revealed my heartrending piece.
“Yesterday, you began to make a sound and a language for the unspeakable.”
Thank you, Justen, for helping me to claim my voice.
Zeppelin Restaurant on left, Antica Cantina on Right
We were quiet on the last evening—a bit tired, reflective, and still overwhelmed from the dining adventure at Zeppelin Restaurant the previous evening. Packing for the return journey commenced. I awoke early the next morning. There had been some scheduled demonstrations in Rome with the Italian labor union which I wrote about at Writingfeemail.
Two trains were going into Termini Station from Orvieto, one at 7:30 a.m. and another at 11:30 a.m. The bus for the funicular didn’t start running until 7:20. I made the decision to leave before the sun came up; assuring myself the Corso Cavour had street lamps. There was little happening so early in the morning. Besides stopping in at a tobacco shop to get the ticket for the funicular, I ploughed ahead, hearing my luggage wheels bump against the cobblestone as I hiked down the hill. Soft rain had begun to fall, mist collected in every cavity.
Pay attention, I scolded myself. Notice the pools of light reflected on the wet surfaces. Listen for the bells, the thump of the newspaper cart headed to the various stores for stocking. See the agile cat maneuvering the treacherous ledge of the cliff wall.
I passed stores I remembered shopping in. Smiling, I recalled Maria from the leather shop, the kind wine purveyor who remarked to me that he remembered seeing Jarita and me coming into town,
the store where I had purchased a scarf from a lady proudly remarking it was reversible and hand sewn, the market whose baskets of fruits and vegetables were now locked down. My hand slipped into my pocket, fingers caressing the chestnut given to me by the vendor, a token she could never know held a world of meaning.
“Dad,” I whispered. “I did it.”
“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” –Sir Edmund Hillary
Later in the morning I slipped into Santa Maria Sopra Minerva,
my favorite church in Rome, and the only Gothic one still in existence there. With my journal and ink pen in hand, I found a pew facing Michelangelo’s statue of Christ and repeated the exercises Justen had taught us in Orvieto.
“Write whatever comes up,” he had instructed.
Alone in Rome, I was slightly fearful of what may surface. I needn’t have worried. What came up was joy, gladness, a happy heart. I wrote for two hours, uninterrupted. Then I laid it all to rest, my intention fulfilled.
If you read the previous post about Justen Ahren and his Approach to Monastic Writing, then you are familiar with his intentions as well. His desire to open us up to the possibilities of receiving what the universe would have us write, devote ourselves to it, and use the tools we learned from him as a method of engaging in conversation within ourselves, had come to fruition.
“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.”—Kahlil Gibran, from On Joy and Sorrow
**Jarita Davis granted permission for the use of her name and image here.