Attenti il Cani


I’ve experienced two writing retreats. This blog series recalls the great luxury of my experience at Civitella Ranieri where I wrote two major sections of If Sons, Then Heirs.


The first week at Civitella was a blur, filled with sad news from home of my cousin Norma’s cancer diagnosis. I spent a day moping, walking, remembering. It was a fast-fast moving cancer. Then I set aside a time each day to walk and pray for her and her family and my sister, who grew up with her daughter. I walked through Umbria thinking of West Philadelphia: Norma at 15, pregnant, coming across the street to my mother when her water broke; Norma at 17, graduating high school with fantastic grades; Norma in her 30s, working at Philadelphia Electric Company, buying her own house somewhere in her 40s. She’d been like a big sister to me. I’d confided in her in my teens. Every day during my walk, I let my mind travel to her. She was losing weight, I heard. It was “dropping off.”

Her diagnosis seemed to underscore my feeling that time at Civitella was so precious that I did not want to waste a minute. But the fact is that much of Week 2 was still about set-up: of my own personal work and living habits and the book. Desires are ever arising, as my friend Jenny used to say with humor and hard-nosed compassion. I wanted output, but it was not the week for harvest. It was a week to cultivate and learn. So I flailed around, finally coming around to what I teach every year: try to find, create, or fake patience and monitor the process.

One very unproductive mind was resenting the time taken away from the assault on this, unyielding novel. My fear response was to count the days left, calculate day-page quotas missed and flirt with losing hope. That was when I didn’t take my mind in hand and forbid recreational despair. And yet, it was true, and not just dodging or lack of discipline, that I could not work well until I did three things:

1.) establish a routine of home connection so that the bad-absentee mother feelings didn’t overwhelm me and punish me with sabotage,
2.) clear out the non-novel work,
3.) reconnect to the ground of being through prayer and mediation, so that I could find a way to accept Norma’s illness and to rejoice in the parts of the writing process that I was resenting.

It took an extraordinary time each day to learn how each of these slow, overtaxed computers, with their Word 98 and Word 2000, liked to be handled so that they wouldn’t freeze or slow down to a crawl. (Open Word, wait the two minutes for it to load; do not do anything else while it’s loading; then go to Explorer. Wait until all computer grinding noise stopped. It was exactly what we did at home, but there it went so slowly that we were tempted to start the next operation before the first was finished. Not a good idea.)

I also learned how to do laundry in the machine and by hand in the refrigerator salad drawer. And I tried to learn new walking routes and went wrong several times, so that it became a running joke. Xiaosong (SHAU-SONG), the Chinese composer, walked four and five hours a day, everywhere, up the local mountains. So everyone said: “Ask Xiaosong.” But Xiaosong and I had different processes and different media. He could walk five hours and hear music in his head. If I walked half the day, I’d be more fit and I’d discover some important underpinnings of this story, but the part that must progress through words on a page wouldn’t happen. Then I’d be crazy.

The homemade maps there didn’t speak to me. I came upon a farm whose Attenti il cane had turned me back the day before. But the staff at Civitella had urged me on. At dinner they said that the law requires owners to pen their dogs. The winding gravel roads, they said, were indeed public. They assured me of this when I specifically mentioned that I’d turned back at this particular “Beware the Dog.”

Lily, our young English intern was emphatic. “It’s the law!”

OK, so on their advice I’d passed the sign once. No dogs. No problem. Va bene. On the return, more than an hour after I first passed, the dogs had been let out. They heard me a tenth of a mile away and got started with infuriated howling.

Well, I thought, my heart pumping, so there’s a law. Ma, does each and every Italian obey the law? Their American cousins don’t always. Hello, Lorene! South Philly?

Even here, the law says to drive 30, and the cars tear down the hill at 50 plus. How do I know that these same speed-ignorers go home and become meticulous dog-fence observers? And who would make legal arguments on my behalf to owners in the cucine sampling fried sage and squash flowers filled with ricotta while their dogs are out front taking me apart? Sure my family could sue later, since there was this damn law, but I did so much want to live and see my children again. If I died, they’d send Bob and the kids this piece of crap draft I had, and what a letdown that would be. (Mom left everybody home for this? Geez.)

When I got to the fence, they were wild, these dogs. I remembered the terrible werewolf squall I heard at night. Three of them, huge, and all the way live. The fence was homemade, farm-built, cheap: Cyclone lite. What these monsters needed was an iron-f/ing gate. They threw themselves against it the wire; it quivered and strained the posts. Heart pounding, I walked on, no canine eye contact, telling myself that I walk in love as Christ loves us; telepathically telling them like the loopy Animal Planet Pet Psychic that I had a right to travel on the public road; their territory was behind that gate, and I respected it.

“Screw you,” they snarled. “We want to rip the freckles off your stinking face. We want to pad our beds with the shredded remains of your wooly hair.”

Frothy growls and Cyclone Lite rattling followed me for a tenth of a mile. I nearly soiled myself.

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