Category Archives: freedom

A Week under Lockdown

Lockdown in Pieve 2In Umbria, it all happened gradually. Like contracting the virus itself, I suppose. One person wearing a mask at the supermarket and everyone trying to act normal about it. The fervent washing of hands upon entering home. The silly jokes. Do you know the latest Italian slogan? Meno tasse, meno tosse (‘Less taxes, less coughing.’ But in Italian it’s funnier because it rhymes.) The collective denial when everyone shook hands as they offered the Sign of Peace during Sunday Mass.

Then things started to heat up. Like the feverish heat of the virus, I suppose. We were only allowed to go out to work, for food shopping and emergencies. Signs warned us at the supermarket to stand at least a meter apart while waiting on line. But I wondered about buying fruit and vegetables that anyone could handle and easily sneeze on. All the flour was missing from the shelves and the mozzarella nearly gone. Schools were all closed, but bars were open and restaurants too. People were still making plans to meet for dinner.

Suddenly everything nearly stopped. Like haltering breaths strangled by the virus, I suppose. We were all forbidden to leave our homes. The cry “Restate a casa. (Stay at home!)” came from every conceivable social media application. For three days, the mayor was furiously screaming at us from tiny videos on our phone, “I don’t know how to say this any plainer.” He looked tired and sounded exasperated. “This is not a holiday. This is a war. RES-TA-TE–A–CA-SA!” Every sharp syllable of his warning crescendoed into a staccato scolding.

lambsAnd then lockdown. Like weary limbs trembling under the virus, I suppose. We live on a tiny hilltop outside of a tiny village nestled under the Italian Apennines (‘tiny Alps’). The life we have chosen to live these past three years means that we are almost always working at home, in the garden, walking in the countryside. Physically, nothing much changes for me, but I mentally struggle with being limited to the space I now call home.

And still… Spring is vibrating forth. Like the life force that surges against the virus, I suppose. Nature refuses to lock down. The blossoming plum tree in front of my house hums with bees that together sound like a distant freight train. Everyday new wild flowers appear. Yellow primroses blanket a meadow, violets lift a corner of a field to delicate heights, and the plum blossoms throw their perfume my way as I hang up the wash. New lambs are being born and wandering the countryside with their mothers. Nature is surging forth with life. Nothing is locking her up. No one can lock her down.

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Amongst the fervor of spring, there is silence. Like the deep sleep of those fighting the virus, I suppose. Greta has gotten her way. Nobody is traveling by plane these days. The roads are so quiet that we can hear the Rasina gurgling half-a-mile away. A river where Saint Francis is said to have washed his wounds after trying to preach to the locals who only jeered and threw stones at him. A river where decades ago the local children used to swim and catch river shrimp to eat.

With life comes death. Whether we wash our hands or don’t wash our hands, we will, everyone of us, die one day. It’s been scientifically proven! I remember one summer afternoon while visiting Giuseppa in her garden, I heard the mew of a newborn kitten coming from under the pigeon coop. Its mother had abandoned it to die; it was blind and starving. I scooped it up and held it against me as it feebly sought mother’s milk. Distraught, I turned to Giuseppa and said, “Oh, Giuseppa, what should I do? What should I do with this kitten?”

Giuseppa, a wise old farming woman, once told me how as a young girl during and after the Second World War, her job was to take care of the beasts. “We had large bulls to pull the plow, goats, rabbits, pigs, and of course chickens,” she said. “My two brothers were afraid of the bulls, but I used to love to walk with them, pulling them by their nose rings. They were really gentle creatures. You know, with animals, you can always tell how they’re going to behave. It’s with people that you can never be certain.”

But this time, Giuseppa looked at me as if I were a small child who had dropped all the fresh eggs. “What should you do, Caterì?” she asked. “Why, put it down.”

It was a direct and poignant reply. I instantly recognized the need to allow Nature to take its own course, to trust that the mother cat’s instincts were better than mine, to recognize that with sacrifice comes strength and renewal. I put the cat down.

We are all being forced to enter into a time of purification and sacrifice. Oddly enough, we are now halfway through the period of Lent– a time before Easter when Christians seek purification through fasting, prayer, and charitable acts. The forty days of Lent are, in many ways, similar to the Islamic time of Ramadan. During Ramadan, Moslems are expected to fast as well as give alms and read the Qur’an.

Assagioli wrote extensively on what he called “the science of applied purification”, insisting that this work must be undertaken in order to transform the lower characteristics of our personality and bring unity to our soul. He described purification of the personality as a process of re-orientation and elevation of the higher mind. But we can also do this work as a nation. As Assagioli wrote:

“A nation is an entity, a soul analogous to a human soul: it can be noble and high or selfish, proud, overbearing. It is about educating, raising, purifying the soul of one’s nation, of which each of us is a part.”

013919 End of Purification RedemptionAt an emotional level, our purification helps to energize the dispersion of negative emotions in the world. At a mental level, purification helps to melt down and destroy old concepts, dogma, fanaticism and ideologies that produce fears and have hypnotized many people.

Sacrifice, solitude, silence, and social distancing. We are in a time of personal, national, and planetary purification. Our personal act of purification is not just for ourselves alone. We also desperately need to carry out this work because when we do, we are participating in the great work of planetary purification.

Nature is our solace and our guide. She is here to remind us that death is transcendent and life is eternally renewed.

Catherine & Pina under lockdown

The author with a cauliflower from her garden and her dog Pina. All under lockdown.

 

Harriet Tubman: Mystic Freedom Fighter

Harriet the conductorIn the USA, February is Black History Month, and I would like to take advantage of this extra last day in February to celebrate Harriet Tubman. Tubman (1821-1913) is famous for being an escaped slave who became one of the most successful conductors on the Underground Railway. She helped lead 60 to 70 fellow slaves into freedom, risking her life 13 times as she clandestinely traveled from the Northern states down to Maryland and back again, ultimately arriving to Canada with her people.

But Tubman was even more than a courageous abolitionist. During the Civil War, she worked as a cook and nurse. She then became an armed scout and spy and was the first woman to lead an armed raid in the war, successfully liberating more than 700 slaves in Combahee Ferry, South Carolina. After the war, she was active in the woman’s suffrage movement and established a home for the care of elderly African Americans, where she died of pneumonia. Just before she died, she told those in the room: “I go to prepare a place for you.” Continue reading

Facing Life’s Ambiguities

ambiguityAccording to Roberto Assagioli, the first stage of any decision is to ascertain the purpose driving us toward our desired goal. During all the subsequent stages of an act of will — deliberation, affirmation, choice, planning and execution – we can often gain energy by returning to reflect on our initial purpose.

However, there may be times when we find ourselves in a difficult situation and unable to understand exactly what we are doing or why. We may feel stuck in a particularly uncomfortable situation.  Or we may have to interact with challenging (sub)personalities, who only trigger our own unresolved issues! Nothing around us seems to feel right anymore. Nothing seems to fit with our ideals or desired aims.

We might be asking ourselves: Whatever are we doing here? Whatever could our purpose be?

Figure 1 Assagioli and Palombi

Roberto Assagioli and Ida Palombi

Eighty years ago, Ida Palombi (1905-1981) posed this exact question to Roberto Assagioli. Having graduated from the University of Rome, in 1939 she found herself working as a social worker and translator for the Ministry of the Interior of Rome under the fascist regime. At the same time, she was regularly attending lessons Assagioli was offering at his home on the Aventine. Continue reading

Talking to Strangers

Internet AddictionI spend last Saturday talking to strangers. As a volunteer for the charity Caritas, I spent two hours in front of a local supermarket asking people to donate food to the Italian National Food Bank. This experience meant that I wore a plastic yellow bib (which declared my legitimacy) while dangling plastic yellow bags in front of passing strangers.

Those who were interested in helping, took the bag and filled it with rice, pasta, tomato sauce, olive oil (this is Italy after all!), baby food or canned vegetables. The donated goods were then collected, boxed and sent off to the local food bank.

I startled most of the shoppers that day with my distinct American accent. “Buon giorno!” I called out cheerily. “Would you like to participate in our food collection for the poor?” I asked this at least 100 times that morning and, as you can imagine, the reactions varied. Some simply said ‘No.’ Some said they had already donated at another supermarket. One man said that he could actually use the yellow plastic bag, thank you very much. Continue reading

Two Newspapers to China

tiananmen_1989_pays_reutersIn 1989, ten days before the Tiananmen Square massacre, my friend Julie and I sat in the China Travel Services office in Hong Kong and debated whether we should travel to Beijing. The U.S. embassy was warning that our safety could not be guaranteed. Should we go anyway? Grappling with our indecision, Julie asked the stone-faced woman behind the counter, “Is it safe?”

The woman stared hard at us and then looked away. “It is China.”

Continue reading

Harkening Within

576px-Etty_Hillesum_1939

Etty Hillesum in 1939

Seventy-five years ago on November 30th, a young Dutch Jewish intellect died at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her legacy of love and reconciliation, as described in her ten diary notebooks and the many letters that she wrote, continues to inspire people around the world. Etty Hillesum (1914-1943) was only 29 years old when she died, but during her short lifespan she managed to live a life of contemplative spirituality and practice in a world that seemed to be falling to pieces around her.

Hillesum grew up in a non-religious home of intellectuals. Her parents were both teachers – her father taught the classics and her mother Russian literature. Hillesum had two younger brothers, both very talented but mentally unstable. She describes having grown up in a “chaotic and sad situation … a madhouse where no human being can flourish.” Continue reading

When No Money Talks

Assagiolis writing about jail

Assagioli’s writing about his time in jail.

One of my favorite anecdotes from Assagioli’s time in prison is when his prison money was running out. He wrote in intimate detail about this experience in his book Freedom in Jail, under the chapter “An Incident and a ‘Test’”.

From the time of his arrest, Assagioli’s wife Nella was making sure that there was enough money in his prison account to warrant his receiving special treatment. In 1940, Regina Coeli prisoners could buy a more comfortable, private cell and more varied and higher quality food. Continue reading