A hillside in Tuscany
I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t have yearnings. I was raised in a culture that placed high value on the practical and the useful, but that didn’t quiet the longings that took up lodging just below the surface of my life. I was three years old, growing up in provincial Utah, when I became enchanted with the idea of living in New York City. Where this notion came from I am not quite sure. I knew no one who lived so far away. (This was the 50s, when geography was destiny.) Eventually we moved to California, the opposite direction. But that dream did come true once I finished school. The clarity of that desire still astounds me, all these years later.
Place has often embodied longing for me. During the 90s I made repeated visits alone to the Celtic coastline of England, Wales and Scotland in search of neolithic stone circles. Once again I am not clear how this obsession took hold of me, but it was my abiding passion for a number of years.
Some time later my daughter Kellin and I watched Bernardo Bertolucci‘s film Stealing Beauty together. We both fell under the spell of the sprawling Tuscan home where the story unfolds. At that moment we conjured a mutual fantasy where our entire family would spend a summer in a similar Tuscan villa. We would each be doing our art and/or projects while basking in that exquisite landscape.
It has been at least 20 years since we saw that film, and I have never lost the texture of that shared yearning. Surprisingly or not surprisingly, Kellin has chosen to live her life in Tuscany. Every visit we make to be with her and her family is a gift, but I am still carrying that longing for a Tuscan summer as we envisioned together long ago.
Part of my desire is purely sybaritic: living life in the company of the most delicious food, wine, companionship and views. That fantasy, always so ripe in me, is part of why I have been enchanted by the incantatory account of Michael Paterniti‘s journey in his memoir, The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese. Paterniti’s story is about falling under the spell of Ambrosio Molinos, a Castillian artisanal cheese maker who is larger than life and utterly seductive. Molinos’ exquisite cheese and his way of life—he lives close to the land, his culture and his passions—highlight what seems to be missing in the quotidian life Paterniti is living with his family in Portland Maine. He yearns for something more, and the force of his longing turns his life upside down for a number of years. Eventually Paterniti comes to terms with what are conflicting desires operating in his life: He can’t be Molinos, and he can’t live his life the way he did before he met him. The book is filled with charm but is also sanguine about the reality of how we can live a life. In a winsome but wise nod to the reader, Paterniti begins his book with a quote from Blaise Pascal: “Imagination magnifies small objects/With fantastic exaggeration/Until they fill our soul.”
So many fantasies and desires! I have a substantial stack of books extolling Buddhist non-attachment and nonduality, but reading about that hard won state of mind has not succeeded in dislodging yearning out of me. At some point in my research I decided that I am not a good candidate for the supreme yogi transcendence I so admire in others. The fact is I actually love having yearnings, answered or unanswered.
In the Argentinian film Mi Ombre Maestra, an aging artist just wants to make art and to forego the vagaries of selling his work to a vapid, fickle art world. He and his gallerist come up with a sly plan that gives him the very life he is wanting by feigning his death. As the prices for his art start to skyrocket (dead artist, limited supply), he is blissfully painting away in isolation and relishing the way the world is now embracing his previously overlooked work. While the film is a light hearted fantasy, what artist hasn’t thought about a scenario like that? I certainly have.
This yearning business does all come back around to art making, for me anyway. In my experience imagination is squirrelly, prone to taking detours and never too concerned about the inconvenience. It wants to take hold of you, and it wants you to follow it wherever it will go.
Sometimes the journey is a call to go external, to wander the hills in search of neolithic stones or to take up residence where the Tuscan light leaves you speechless. And sometimes the call is internal as it is when dreams come with paintings I have not yet made, ones that appear to reside in my future. Having just come through a protracted season when my creative life has had to cut new channels through my interior landscape, I am grateful that yearnings are still pulling at me to keep at it, to keep navigating through to what lies ahead.