From the Celts, and the home to some of the greatest lyrical writers in the Western world, comes the notion of thin places. “A place where the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin. A thin place is where one can walk in two worlds - the worlds are fused together, knitted loosely where the differences can be discerned or tightly where the two worlds become one.” It doesn’t surprise me that the first link on a search of the phrase turns up a New York Times travel writer, Eric Weiner, from a 2012 article entitled “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer.” “TRAVEL, like life, is best understood backward but must be experienced forward, to paraphrase Kierkegaard. After decades of wandering, only now does a pattern emerge. I’m drawn to places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again. It turns out these destinations have a name: thin places.”
I have had the experience many times. Hawaii, India, Key West, and driving into Albuquerque, New Mexico in the middle of night from the west, when you crest a mountain and see the city lights below, In the late summer of 1977, nineteen, inchoate, I left Rochester with another girl whom I met in the dark room of my photography class. “I’m bummed. Tomorrow I was supposed to leave for a cross-country trip, but my travel buddy just backed out,” I said swishing the paper in cleaning fluid, watching an attempt at artful form of a pregnant belly come to the surface. It was the image of my teen-age lover of many years and not a baby we had planned together. My “travel buddy.” “I’ll go with you” someone said. It was dark and large enough of a room I didn’t even know who spoke. Once my eyes settled on the person I recognized her as a girl in class, about my age, but who had been so quiet it might have been the first time I heard her voice. “Ok, I’ll pick you up at 6.” Didn’t even know her last name until we were in Ohio.
This time in Italy I was surrounded by familiarity. Italian friends whom I have made at John Cabot University over the last few years, my son and his friend-since-second-grade who attended the summer session, some former students attending summer classes, and no fewer than four U.S. friends who came at various intervals for a visit. With my younger son now attending college at Elon, and my older one in Ithaca while I have moved to Massachusetts, it has been a little lonely for me as welcoming as everyone in my new place has been. This summer filled me up again. And so perhaps it was from a place of emotional security that I took the risk to let myself go. Into thin places.
Freud, as I am sure you know, had quite a relationship with Rome. Traveling around Italy many times throughout his younger life, he avoided it for years, until finally, at 45, he entered its gates and allowed his mind to travel to a time before the Christians and the Catholic Church, that, for so many years had held him back. Gibbon, of course, had one of the more famous time travel sits in the Eternal City. Even Joyce repaired there, in the belief that it would inspire him to finish a novel. He left months later, penniless after having been robbed (while blind drunk, naturally), but with the seeds of his great masterpiece brewing in his imagination.
To this extremely short list of pilgrim writers, what could I add? Not much, as it turns out. I sent the first draft of a book on higher education and the internet to Cornell Press before I left. While there I simply read through proofs on an article for the San Bernardino iPhone case published this month in Westlaw Software Journal. As I do every year, I bought a new leather-bound journal at Officina della Carta on via Bernedetta in Trastevere; looking through my old one before I retire it to the closet I decided not to read the entries few and far between scribbles I had taken in meetings, the names of books I should but will not likely read, and notes for class lectures. For literature I bought one Italian and one English version of Elena Ferrante’s first volume of her now famous quartet each for friends. I game my son a new edition of Robert Hughes’ Rome as a keepsake.
Boarding the return flight on Saturday I anticipated how I recoil at the first persistent public English words. Mind you, John Cabot, an American University in Rome, holds instruction in English. My Italian friends indulge me with their fluent English because my Italian is not even so ample as to be considered “bad.” I can manage to read a restaurant menu and order in Italian, usually to waiters who respond to me in English. At the beach club in the coastal town of Gaeta where I vacation on weekends, I walked in the for the first time this year and a new server came up to me and said, knowingly, “You speak English?” So why do I resist? In part it is symbolic for the leaving. In other part it is inherently the language. Proper Italian is simply the most beautiful sounding language in the world. But this time I discovered something more … about me. Without knowing what I hear on the streets, in restaurants and shops, often even worlds spoken to me, I soak up the beauty and get momentarily lost in the emotional space between language as sound and language as meaning. Internally, it is a quiet place. A place where I can be alone but not lonely. It is a thin place, lost by the time they closed the cabin door.
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