Big Smokers and Gratitude

Part 2 of my blog series, recalling the great luxury of my experience at Civitella Ranieri where I wrote two major sections of If Sons, Then Heirs.


“Life,” writes J. Neville Ward in The Use of Praying, “takes a lot of consecrating...but if it is lived thankfully it is well on the way to becoming a holy thing. Happiness almost of itself merges into holiness….This is why, as C.S. Lewes has pointed out [inReflections on the Psalms], the Psalms are so full of the idea of praise.  It is because all happiness, ‘all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise’…”

Irini Spanidou, a thoughtful Greek American novelist there [God’s Snake, Fear] told me that although she was not a religious woman, one day when the sky was so blue and the birds were singing their many songs, she felt a welling up of gratitude to be alive and aware, and out of her deepest core came the words:  Thank God.

I tried to find a way to find a way to give thanks for this tedious process, for my resentment of the bad, simplistic prose I was writing, a story that seemed trite and obvious, unworthy of so many years of thought and slow-burning research.  I tried to offer up my embarrassment at feeling so awkward and incapable.  I put it in a mayonnaise jar in my mind, clumsy writing on tiny scrolls, unworthy of to be placed on the mind’s altar, or surrounded by candles and petals and fruit.  But it was an offering nonetheless.  Give it up.  Accept and take through me, do not resist, avoid, cringe.  Wake up at night and see what it’s saying, this restlessness. WAKE UP, LORENE!  Feel the grief about the appalling fact of Norma’s suffering; answer emails, make a call and see the veins of suffering, like the illness itself, throw out fast-growing misery among her loved ones.  Give up other cares from home, so many things done and left undone at home. Take them in. Accept. Give thanks not only for blue sky, but for error and bumbling, for annoyance and impatience.  Taste and see.

Some of it flowed right into the book.  It always does. Some was there from the beginning and I couldn’t hear it, like the themes in Mahler’s Third that start in the first wild movement like lightning hitting amino acids and rolling through time on with the thunder. Some of it I needed to live in order to become the person who could write the book better. I don’t know how much better. I did know that it might not be good enough for my wanting.  If that happens, then that too must be offered up.

Of course I needed to write a bad first chapter over and over.  This is how the marble is quarried.  And blocks of stone, no matter how beautiful, are not finished sculpture.

Week 2 was the final week for two writers’ partners, so as we got down to more work, we also become a smaller group. I particularly missed Jim, the Minnesota recovering Fundamentalist Christian who was funny and wise and took Polaroids of us.  He worked harder than anyone on Italian verbs, took a daily walk into town, posted letters faster than the staff could do, and brought back newspapers and information. His novel required him to learn major divination systems from across the world—Ifa, I Ching, tarot cards, astrology, Welsh mythology, Nordic, Mayan— to understand the correspondences among the world’s religions, real and direct, not just theoretical, and to chart them on an ever-growing website (  He said he comforted himself with the knowledge that it took Tolkien 30 years to work out his first book.

Perrine also left. She was a young woman whom I talked to some, but not so much because she’s more comfortable in French, and my French is, how you say? Non-existent. She was also one of the few non-drinkers; she hated the smell of it.  She also hated cigarette smoke.  But since her partner, Gaetan was, as she said, “a big smoker,” she put up with it, but with much hand-waving and unhappiness.

It made me remember Bob’s patience with me as a “big smoker,” and the long, winding road back to being a non-smoker. I talked to several people there about it, just as protection.  With this big smoking contingent, and my nervous energy about the book, the old habits sensed the chance for a comeback! One day early on I went into my bag looking for something, and couldn’t figure out what.  After, like 15 years off Winstons, I was looking for a cigarette.

It was in an unguarded moment of reverting back to impatience and fear:  I’m here now—so where’s the book?  Book, please. Yoo-hoo, Novel? Where’s the interesting, textured prose written about lives that are real and nuanced, telling an American story that’s been disfigured and ignored? Where is it? (Notice the inside-out process of creation turned wrong side in with hyped jacket copy substituting for plot, characters, setting.)  And who has replaced it with these 20 pages of drivel?

And so on.

Not Zen.

I took to weeding little patches of gravel here at odd moments.  You can see why.


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