Living in Italy has meant starting a new life. Even the best of changes, ones that we initiate with great enthusiasm and with a thirst for adventure, can challenge long-held conditioning and behaviors. In my experience, this isn’t a process that can be controlled, and the bends in the road can’t be anticipated with accuracy. More and more I gravitate to the image of life as a big river, and I am learning to let go and let the it take me. Everyone’s experience is different, but perhaps some of my musings will resonate with you on your journey of change.

The Stories We Tell – Our Playground or Our Prison?

The Stories We Tell, Italywise

A dear friend recently complimented me on my patience and thoroughness in planning for and making the move to Italy. The grand re-envisioning and re-building of my life wasn’t something I could have approached without research and a plan. My vision served me well, and though there were course corrections as new information came to light, I could not have completed the journey without having a “North Star”.

In the process of following my dream I created a story of how it was “supposed” to all unfold and look. Being in my fourth year of residency here, now I can tell you that becoming fixated and insistent on MY preconceived story was the least helpful and most anxiety producing posture or mindset. When I metaphorically set down my pen, and began to allow the story to write itself, and to evolve and change (often significantly) I found myself in a much better place.

Things happen differently for different people. For some, things just flow and fall into place, and they have a natural ability to go with the flow of life. I suspect these folks are the exception rather than the rule.

The stories we tell are a manifestation of an evolutionary, conditioned need to explain life and the world around us.

The earth is densely populated with 7.4 billion individual brains looking outward at the world, and interpreting events through unique filters and conditioning. That means 7.4 billion variations on the story we call our world and universe. Yes, we may agree on some things, but every person is a unique story-teller. Our interpretive left brains, through the evolutionary process, rule all too often, how we respond to the world. Looking through the metaphorical periscope at life, and surveying the landscape for potential dangers, indeed have served us well when we were in danger of becoming some creature’s next meal. Yet, I believe this interpretive function has run amuck, dominating our lives, and telling us stories about everything. We then take these stories to be true, and our psyches and physiologies get thrown out of whack.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE storytelling. I love how stories can approach or hint at truths that never can be contained or articulated with our small human brains. I love how changeable and creative we can be with our stories – as long as we approach them lightly and as long as we don’t make them hard, fixed and literal. If we do, judgment can rear its ugly head determining how to respond, and then we tell ourselves further stories about what everything means. I believe this marriage to our stories can create a prison – one that isn’t “out there” but in our minds.

We never really know what everything means.

Personally speaking, I’ve spent far too much of my life insisting on have an explanation, or at least an answer, NOW. That’s pretty demanding and pardon my expression, rather ballsy. Like most of my fellow Earth inhabitants, I feel God or the Universe owes me an explanation. But, in my life, I’m finding that is a complete trip into futility. While some of my stories are playful, creative and exciting, too many of my other stories are judgments or indictments of the events around me that do not fall in line with my vision of how things “should” be. My imagination is a potent force. But, it can get a bit out of control, and can start trying to create a story or non-stop commentary about everything happening around me. I share this not as a dramatic confession, but as a breakthrough of understanding how my mental circuits get fried on occasion. It’s like the interpretive, storytelling throttle gets stuck in high gear.

All too often, we have a thought, and then we create a story and decide, because these thoughts and stories have appeared in our heads, they must be real…they must be true. They must be dealt with. We’re saying “I know better.” Consequently, when we find ourselves under the sway of dark emotions, often it’s because of the story we’re telling ourselves as to the “truth” of a situation.

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What Brings You Joy?

Joy, Italywise

Joy – Find Yours.

I’ve been asking myself this question a LOT lately. Perhaps, getting older, and making a significant life change triggers a winnowing process. I’m a big believer in having a full life, but also I’m becoming a devoted believer in the importance of “editing” the contents of one’s life, and the benefits of traveling “light”.

This post may seem like it’s coming completely out of left field, especially on the heels of a post about the logistics of buying a house in Italy. Yet, I’m afraid I would be doing a disservice to my followers and to people contemplating a similar life change if I only spoke to the mechanics of such a move, and if I didn’t share how the journey affects me personally.

My partner and I have just moved to the Veneto, so I’m certain the packing and unpacking have been prompting reflection on what brings me joy. Also, I’ve been slowly reading and absorbing the words of Marie Kondo, in her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. I say “slowly reading” because something inside me recognizes an essential truth – one that could lead to adopting a significant shift in how I approach what to keep in my life (and I’m not just talking about material “stuff”). The zinger for me has been how Marie Kondo reframes how a person might approach the process of editing and creating space in one’s life. Instead of approaching the task with metaphorical pruning shears, she urges her readers to look at the individual contents of their lives and ask “Does this spark joy?” If the answer is “yes”, you keep it, if not, say “farewell”.

I highly recommend Marie Kondo’s book, if only to consider a different perspective on how you value the contents of your life. While Ms. Kondo focuses primarily on one’s personal space, I believe her philosophy has merit well beyond – into the experiences and relationships of your life.

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Living in Italy, Italywise

Finding Your Voice – Staying Open

Being and staying open to the full gamut of experience that life has to offer isn’t something that has come naturally to me. I still talk a good game, and tell myself I’ve evolved. Yet, at times, I feel a physical sensation in my solar plexus and in my chest that feels as though some kind of internal resistance or “brake” is saying “NO!” to experiences that don’t fit with my preconceived ideas of how things should be. Then, I sense my world becoming narrow and constricted. When this happens, I believe I have cut myself off from the wise, inner creative muse. My authentic voice temporarily becomes mute.

I’m learning to watch and allow even this rift in my psyche, when it happens, rather than trying to oust it. Attempting to strong-arm or wrestle it into submission only ensures resistance unpacks its bags and hangs around. Funny how steering into, rather than running from, the less desirable experiences in life can be the path to regaining one’s equilibrium.

So, in this fourth and last installment in my post series on finding your voice, I’d like to speak to something that has become a daily lesson for me – staying open. Staying open has meant not allowing myself to be trapped in my left brain, where I can’t readily access the rich resources in the expansive creative world of my right brain.

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Finding Your Voice, and Your Unique Style

Starting a New Life, Italywise

I’ve always preferred Bernini’s style of David, to Michelangelo’s. Yet, there is no right and no wrong, when it comes to self expression.

Part of the journey to finding your voice, in art and in life, means finding your unique style. Much of our conditioning insists on sanctioned modes of expression, which can muddy the waters and stymie us from stepping into a style of being and expression that feels authentic.

My experience is that most people have to hack through life with a metaphorical machete to find what feels genuine for them. I believe a fundamental human dilemma is believing we all need to share the same reality or approach to life. Why else would our intellects have evolved, yet our attachment to war and conflict not abated?

One of my favorite singers, Vonda Shepard, speaks to the challenge of finding one’s authentic voice, in the midst of society’s conditioning, in her song Mischief and Control (from her album It’s Good Eve, available at Amazon.com), referring to the “painter” in all of us, as she seeks to express herself. For me “control” is a creativity-killer, and “mischief” speaks to the importance of play in finding your voice, while learning to ignore the chorus of other voices…

…But there’s an army of voices
She might have to get through… – Vonda Shepard

While my dear Momma Liz continues to coach me from the great beyond, I remember her always urging me to experiment and to try different approaches on my journey to finding my own style. She also reminded me that the world would be full of people telling me to follow their paths, and to not be discouraged.

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Finding Your Voice, and Learning to Play

I believe the word “should” can be your greatest nemesis when it comes to learning to play and to “finding your voice”. As I wrote in the first installment of this series, to “color outside the lines” probably has been the most important advice left to me by my artist mother. The “shoulds” of our conditioning will keep you prisoner to preconceived concepts of how life is supposed to be, and they will leave you in narrow world that doesn’t reveal to you the magnificent possibilities of self-expression.

Easier said than done. Oh, how I wish I could toss all my “shoulds” to the side of the road, and proceed happily on my journey. But, I’ve found it’s like pulling weeds. The first step is being aware of them and seeing their roots, which go way back to childhood when potent influences, like society, the church and the school system began training our brains and behaviors into becoming well-behaved and perfect little beings.

At the beach and ready for mischief.

At the beach and ready for mischief.

We do know how to play, but most of us have forgotten. Playing was like breathing as children, but as adults all too often we look at play simply as a diversion from the more difficult realities of life vs. being a rich source for unearthing the treasures that exist in every one of us.

While, like most people, I experienced many powerful “molding” influences to keep me in line as a young child, my mom’s approach to art was a good antidote. Liz was fearless in playing and experimenting in her studio, and in the classroom. She would think nothing of going outside our house and tearing off an interesting piece of bark from a tree, and taking it into her studio and glueing it to a canvas, and then building a painting around it. She did this with many found objects, and I loved her “collage” period. I liken it to her swimming around all the possibilities for creative expression to find what resonated with her. And, different themes and media resonated with her at different times. She exemplified the metaphor of letting the river (of creativity) take her on an undisclosed journey.

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Finding your voice – in art, and in life.

Finding your voice sometimes can take a lifetime. We often have to dig our way out of a mountain of conditioning, and voices telling us how things are “supposed” to be and what is “acceptable”. Confusion ensues, and we can be afraid to color outside the lines. Because discovering one’s own voice is such a rich topic, and one central to the fabric of my being, this post will be the first of four installments.

I was blessed to be born to a mother full of life, and with a love of teaching. My mom, Liz Smith-Cox, was a highly influential art educator in the public school system. Her students remember the powerful impact she had on their lives, in the art classroom, and in life in general. I remember how she recognized my artistic abilities at the age of five when I crafted the “Happy Squirrel” out of terra-cotta clay. The little guy had movement, and personality. She kept putting clay, drawing paper, crayons and pencils in my hand, and encouraged me create or draw anything and everything that struck my fancy. No limits.

The woman who taught me to find my own artistic voice - my mom, Liz Smith-Cox.

The woman who taught me to find my own artistic voice – my mom, Liz Smith-Cox.

Then, I entered first grade, where I was under the tyrannical rule of a mean old lady, Mrs. Anderson. Someone had “taken the meat out of her sandwich” years before, and she was keen to rule with an iron fist, and a hard set of rules as to how things should be done. Why such an embittered soul was put in charge of joyous, and impressionable young children is beyond me. On my second report card, Mrs. Anderson gave me D in handwriting. My mother was dumbfounded, and when she met with the teacher to gain an understanding of why, Mrs. Anderson explained that handwriting included “coloring” and I was refusing to color within the lines of the drawings provided. It had nothing to do with my penmanship. My mom was furious. I think this is one of the first times I understood the force of my mom’s belief that creativity should be unfettered. I also remember how she stood up at a PTA meeting and gave a man a thorough dressing down for suggesting that all that was needed for art in the schools was some crayons and a coloring book. “Coloring outside the lines” became a recurring theme and mantra in her many years of teaching and workshops.

My Momma Liz was a tiger when it came to protecting and encouraging the individuality of the creative voice. I am incredibly blessed that she nurtured me along in this regard, as I believe such a foundation has helped me find my voice much more easily. This isn’t to say that I haven’t taken detours into what I believed was the accepted way to go, but something always has harkened me back to my own path.

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Piano Piano – The Art of Slowing Down

Why rush? I’m asking myself this question more and more. Italian life, and the emphasis on slowing down to savor the present moment, steadily has been exposing my American conditioning of go, do, and achieve.

Italians value slowing downs and enjoying the moment.

Italians, as a general rule, value slowing down, connecting with others, and enjoying the present moment.

My favorite saying here in Italy is “piano, piano” which translates as “slowly, slowly” or “softly, softly”. You’ll be hard pressed to find this exact translation if you refer to an Italian-to-English dictionary. This puzzles me because it is used so frequently. My best understanding is that it originates from musical terminology, and is an indication to approach and play a particular piece or section of music more slowly and softly. Nonetheless, it has become a new mantra.

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Lost in thought, or anchored in the present?

 

Clouds are an oft-used metaphor for thoughts...

Clouds are an oft-used metaphor for thoughts…

A fair warning…this post is going to be fairly philosophical. I feel compelled to share these rather personal musings with you, since I believe I’ve been asked by life, as part of this major move to Italy, if “thinking” and “thoughts” are serving me, or if I am their prisoner.

One thing I’ve learned about myself is that, somewhere along the way in my development, I adopted the belief that thinking was my most powerful weapon, and my best armour to the perils of life. I suspect the real shift or enslavement to thought (vs. “being”) began somewhere around ten or eleven years old when I began plotting a strategy to ensure I would always feel safe in the world, and to get what I wanted. And, this is when I began living locked away in the tower of my mind. This is what I mean by being “lost in thought”.

In retrospect, I see the enormous energy drain that resulted from living this way – watching, thinking, worrying and controlling. This didn’t reach the breaking point, or the point at which I realized “There has to be a better way.” until I made the decision to move my life, lock, stock and barrel, to Italy. I left the security of the familiar, and I couldn’t have asked for a bigger transition that demanded incredible patience, and asked me to “do my best” while simultaneously telling me “to let go”. Old habits don’t die a quick or easy death.

“Trying to change thought with thought is like trying to bite your own teeth.” – Alan Watts

I’ve listened to a fair number of Alan Watts’s lectures. He has always been a great source for shaking up my usual perspectives on how things are supposed to be. This particular quote hit me between the eyes. A few simple words had described the mental battle I had been losing in trying to change myself and adapt.

I came to see, and doubt, the belief that I could use the power of my mind (thinking) to conquer or muscle my way through anything.

This has lead to some other personal realizations.

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Trusting life can yield surprising results…

The two "miracle" kittens are happily frolicking outside the house.

The two “miracle” kittens are happily thriving.

If you’ve been following my Italian adventures on this blog, you may have read my post “Courage, and building a new life” in which the challenging circumstances surrounding the birth of three feral kitten taught me about moving ahead in the face of uncertainty. When I last wrote, Micia finally had started producing milk and the two surviving kittens looked as though they had a fighting chance. This was almost two months ago, and I’m happy to report that they are thriving, and frolicking about in our little neighborhood. I named the kitten with the strong black and grey markings “Fonzie”. His little sister is still awaiting her name. You see, until a more careful examination recently, we didn’t realize she was a female. I’m particularly attached to her since I remember when I was huddled up with the newborns, warming them individually in my cupped hands. She was the one who wrapped her tiny paws around my forefinger, and started nibbling on the tip of my finger. She encouraged me to keep going, and she was the one who helped me understand that it wasn’t an inability to feed – it was Micia’s initial inability to produce milk.

These kittens, as well as our dear indoor cat children, Oscar and Francesca, are constant gifts leading me back to the present moment, and away from obsessing about the future.

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Courage, and building a new life.

CourageLeave it to the birth of three kittens to teach me about courage and learning to let life take you on a journey…

Seven days ago it was Sunday afternoon, and our sweet feral cat Micia was crying just outside our front door. Her water had broken and we knew her kittens would be born soon. Just two hours later we heard the faint cries of the hungry newborns coming from the room below our sun room, which houses the water heater, bundles of kindling, and some plastic tarp. I was sure Micia would take good care of her babies. I went to bed that night confident that all would be well when I awoke in the next morning.

The next morning brought distraught cries from Micia. She was waiting for me at the front door, and she quickly moved in the direction of the kittens, looking back to make sure I was following her. When I entered the room housing the kittens, my heart sank. The three kittens were lying on their backs, they were not moving, and their tongues were protruding from their mouths as if they had painfully departed from this world. I picked one up and I felt a cold, stiff body. Micia looked up at me as if to implore me to “do something.” What could have happened in the course of the night?

I was convinced they were dead, so I put them in a basket and began the grim task of finding a proper burial site.

Then, I saw the faintest of movements. They weren’t dead, just on the verge of making that transition. My head was spinning. What could I possibly do? I ran in the house, read about hypothermia and dehydration of newborn kittens on my Ipad. I was going to have to wing it. So, I went back to the tiny room, and I took each kitten and held them individually in my cupped hands, stopping to stroke them and give them whatever comfort and warmth I could. Micia was steadfast, sitting next to me. She was confused. Her eyes never left me, and they conveyed a trust and hope as she watched me.

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