According to Aristotle, the later stage of life should be devoted to leisure and deep contemplation. I thought this was a perfect advice by the Great Greek for a vacation. Vacationing offered an opportunity for paying heed to sage’s advice to cultivate a state of internal joy and freedom from drudgery of fear about new variants of Covid-19.
We formed a group of 10 people. Most of them old friends of college days of 45+ years back at Penn State. We decided to go for 15 days to Italy (Lake Como, Tuscany, and Venice) in late September 2022, a few months before I was to reach the age of 71. The thought of vacationing with old friends had started invigorating my weathered body with joy and excitement sweeter than gelato. We called our vacation “Roman Holiday.”
The thoughts expressed in this blog were rising like flames in my head during vacationing. My memories of days spent at Penn State were initiating rituals of metamorphosis in me.
Long years apart can make no breach, the seconds cannot fill
The absence of the witch does not invalidate the spell
The ambers of thousand years uncovered by the hand,
That fondled them when they were fire, will stir and understand.
- Emily Dickinson
During vacation, our group was immersed in care of each other with laughter and perfect understanding. I think that this was possible only because we had spent a considerable time with each other during our college days as good friends. Researchers in human behavior psychology have concluded that a minimum of 200 hours of quality time spent in each other’s company is a prerequisite for a good understanding to develop among friends, and lovers. We were together for over four years and undoubtedly had spent this much time with each other. In Mahabharata, all relationships disintegrated except the one between Lord Krishna and Arjuna, which was based on friendship which they built by investing considerable time with each other. Good friends are the nectar of life.
The vacation was filled with flavorful food experiences, discussions on both meaningful and not very meaningful topics, reminiscing about good old days, and joyous moments.
Just as leopards who cannot change their spots, two of my friends in the group had flickering personalities laced with funny bones and in this vacation, they showed that nothing had changed. To demonstrate it, at one point they spotted a young, good-looking girl walking towards us with one of her friends. Their waving and smiling to attract her attention resulted in the girl smiling and coming to talk to us. For hours they were in a flurry of excitement, recounting the story and admiring the pictures, all in jest.
One afternoon, I was sitting by myself at a cafeteria drinking fourth or fifth cup of cappuccino. The sun was shining like a newly sharpened sword. My cardiovascular system was in trance under the influence of the melodic beauty of Tuscany and I was relishing the restorative effects of leisure. Happy thoughts and memories were crawling all over my skin creating a feedback loop. I didn’t know where the guys had gone, but the ladies were completely immersed in mythology of modern consumerism hopping from one store to another.
After some time of sitting there, I saw one of the couples of our group coming towards me. The couple was always very attentive towards each other. Simone Weil, a French Philosopher, had written that “Attention is rarest and purest form of generosity”. Attention creates desire to fulfil the needs of each other. To me they were straight out of mythological world, and I was awed by their devotion to each other.
Eating had always put us in the labyrinth of indescribable experiences. American food being highly processed has a dampening effect on brain activity. In Italy some people call American food “sad” while Italian food is called “glad”. All the restaurants we visited had various varieties of pastas adorning their menu. We practiced the dictum that if anything is worth eating, it is worth overeating.
We visited ta few churches. Most of the churches we saw were built in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and were a beautiful expression of art and engineering combined. One church I remember visiting was very small and simple, but one could feel spirit of holy men and women vibrating in every inch of it. A few people were sitting on old benches. I noticed an elderly lady looking at the Jesus on the cross in a deep meditative state. My gaze kept on going in her direction. Then something snapped in her, and she started crying. It may have been due to the rising of painful memory, or a deep uncontrollable emotion. I have seen this happening in Sikh Temples quite often, even I have cried on hymns sung on melancholic melodies. Sometimes, a conversation between me and myself ensues in Gurudwara giving rise to intense longing for meaning.
During our last three days in Italy, we were in Venice. We did a lot of walking around the city. I have a very poor eyesight and carry a cane, but in almost every case most of the women lent their shoulders for me to put my hand while walking. Mostly this help was provided by my wife. During long walks her shoulder would start hurting due to me putting pressure, but her slim body refused to give up. I am thankful for this boon of her as my life partner.
As age progresses, we tend to get more and more shrouded in our own mythology. This shroud became more and more transparent during vacation among us. Nobody was holding on to his/her thoughts for fear of offending someone.
On the last day in Venice, we attended String Quartet Orchestra in the evening. The orchestra was going to play Antonio Vivaldi’s compositions. The cello player who was conducting was a renowned world musician. While playing, he closed his eyes and went into a state of trance. Certain pieces were in a minor key.It is said that minor key is the voice of soul, and the joy enters through the door of melancholy. His music gathered scattered pieces of my wandering thoughts and brought it to a stage of pure listening. I have attended several concerts, but only few have left such a strong memory of the blessed sound emanating from his cello:
I thank you for the smallest sound,
For the way my ears open
Even before my eyes
As if to remember before everything began,
With an original vibrant note,
And I thank you for this original everyday music
Always being remember, always being played,
As being remembered as something new
- Poem: Blessing for Sound, by David Whyte