Usually I like to arrive solo. Fran, my husband, and I are terrible auto-companions–I clench as he sashays, speeds ahead, breaks for sudden red lights. No wonder I make him nervous. For air travel, we do ok, but usually only once a year do we want to go in the same direction: someplace warm, away from Minnesota’s socked-in snow. Otherwise, he hightails it west to the wilds of Las Vegas or California; I fly east, to Italy or maybe Paris, Brussels, Munich.
In my mind’s eye spins a distant version of our solar system: the sun blazing against interplanetary dark, and eight (or nine) planets rolling in their orbits around it–product of fifth-grade science when Mrs. Weston, music and science teacher, presented us a replica on wires with an orange for the sun. What these planets couldn’t show was their individual tilt. Now, in early morning dark as I write this, I imagine our part of the earth tilted away from the sun in winter gloom, while Buenos Aires offers its southern flank to long summer days. Lucky we spin, I inform myself; otherwise, half the earth would be constantly scorched; the other, perpetually starlit. A shivering proposition.
Rhythmic fluctuation, light-dark, light-dark: implanted in us in the womb. Our cats come alive at night, hunters of small timid creatures of the dark, prey to the cats’ superior vision and rampant claws. We are committed to motion from inception. Not gigantic leaps, kangaroo-style; not sudden scurries and bounds like rabbits. But steady pacing back and forth, up and down furrows, following herds and ripening fruit; delivering mail to neighborhoods; stuck in traffic five days a week, still miles from home.
The fluctuation I like best is revisiting critters and places, day in and day out, season upon season, or, with luck, once or twice a year. Tilly the cat curls behind me in the desk chair as I write, her body warm against me, adding a slight purr to the comfort; the backyard bird-feeding extravaganza viewed ten times a day from the big picture window upstairs: there’s a flash of red–cardinal in the woeful pine; I count ten squirrels at various seed dumps in the criss-cross of paths we’ve managed to carve from this exhorbitant snow. More chickadees flit to the one feeder not prey to squirrels–how I love their jaunty speed. Two days ago I returned from an outing to find feathers and dots of blood strewn under the tips of the pine, and the carcass of a pigeon with wings spread, its core torn to bits. Cooper’s Hawk: the third pigeon done in this winter. Fran suggests I’m luring the pigeons to their deaths. Possibly. But hawks have to live too and how could they possibly dive for voles through these feet of snow.
When I’m lured back to Italy or Charleston, time after time, it’s because I look forward to finding friends there, and the friends are as much places as people. A play of light, heft of air–I’m turning a corner to step into the piazza before Santa Croce in FLorence. Tourists criss-cross, the statue of Dante, head half lowered, holds down the left edge of the church steps. The looming facade lowers to the tiny pinnacle of the Pazzi chapel to the right, this top of its tiny dome the only portion visible beyond the wall–another marvel of the great Florentine architect Brunelleschi.
Standing before Santa Croce I recall a display of photographs taken of the horrific acqua alta, high water of 1966, when the Arno, heaved high by unusual rain, overflowed its banks to the height of many many feet, toppling a Cimabue crucifix and ruining it forever, while the FLorentines heroically rescued countless other object of artistic and religious veneration.
In the middle 60s, I was working at Doubleday as a secretarial assistant to one of the early editors of Anchor Books, Anne Freedgood. She had friends and authors who knew FLorence first hand. I had yet to visit Italy, but the images of this city of art and letters roiled in mud and muck amid international rescue efforts–Jackie Kennedy lent her name, as I remember–became part of my growing library of images that would eventually put me in motion–companions of the mind and heart, urging me forward and back to many returns.