BY LISA MARIE BASILE
I came to Sorrento in Campania, Italy for eight days, alone. Actually, I’m writing this from the balcony off of my room during the golden hour, when the pink and white flowers and the ivy vines are drenched in a soft honey-colored light. God’s filter. The cosmos’ generous reminder that Earth is perfect without us. But the Italian people surely make a strong argument; they are one of the world’s maestros of splendor and creation. From their frescoes to the delicate placement of flowers wherever and anywhere flowers can grow, the Italians understand the holiness of not only aesthetics but intentional living.
So, in the land of the sirens, as the Sorrento coast is known, it is no surprise that I — without a true understanding of what I would embark on — fell well into the depths. Perhaps you can blame it on my elemental nature; I’m a scorpio whose language is cthonic. I crave the long hours of confession and exploration and transformation.
Before Italy, I’d been in London alone — in quaint Datchet, a village just outside London, technically — for three days. So for 11 days, I’d been in relative solitude, save for ordering a pint or cobbling enough Italian together to purchase a boat ticket.
As a gift to myself for finishing my forthcoming book, The Magical Writing Grimoire (2020), I booked a holiday to Italy, on my own — to write, to dream, to swim in the cerulean sea, to see where my blood comes from.
But as I would learn — when night fell here in Italy, it fell hard, and without a soul to speak to on my own (in this six-room church-turned-bed and breakfast tucked high into the mountains) I felt a transformation take place.
Into the depths
For some, eleven days of solitude is doable, desirable even. But for many, it’s not. It is a sentencing. It isn’t that I crave silence. On the contrary; I fear it — especially coming from New York City. It’s that I needed it. There’s a difference.
If I could not quiet my mind, if I could not disappear from my life, how could I truly know what it meant? What could I learn from the other side of my life, where my own body is my only anchor?
As creators — writers, leaders, artists — and as humans, we rely on a kind of sustenance. You pick the poison. We need to drink it, inhale it, dive into it. For me, that bread and wine is light and space, solitude, apart-ness. A certain relinquishing of comfort. I needed to be challenged, far away from the myself and the places I knew. I felt a restlessness growing in me that demanded a sequestering.
For the longest time, however, my weaknesses have found the form of a fear of abandonment, the need for (but fear of) quiet, and lack of control. It comes from trauma and it comes from knowing that around any corner I might fall into the abyss of self. Thinking too much. Add a little wine, and I’m fucking gone.
But in being alone, I have faced my demons. I have named them. Here in Italy I’ve abandoned what I knew to be comfortable and safe. I felt, in some moments, far into the mountains in this isolated commune high above the more populated Sorrento coastline, that I abandoned myself. What were you thinking, I asked myself at least once, coming here alone, for all this time, without anywhere to go on your own? There are two restaurants down the road, a market that closes for siesta, and winding streets of farmland that cannot be traversed by foot.
I’d abandoned a sense of control. First of all — traveling abroad is not like going to the cinema alone or sitting awkwardly, fidgeting during a solo dinner. The end point is not soon. The awkwardness is replaced by a small village curiosity, a light that shines on you and is hot and is real. You begin to see yourself as the subject. But you realize the ego is a type of demon you must drag out to the little square and send off on its way.
But more than noticing my aloneness, control issues threw me into the sea. I could not control the inevitable surprises, which came in the form of car breakdowns, missing boat rides, nearly fainting in 90-degree heat. Walking up hundreds of steps, on a cliff, just to get to some semblance of where other people are.
And of course, the quiet. The heavy quiet that pools in like a ghost, under the door and through the shutters, at night. The quiet that tells you how far you are from everything, how many hours you have until sleep finally settles in. What of the anxieties and rogue feelings of sadness? They are there, a chaotic circus of them all, prodding you, reminding you how far up the mountain you are — without a car nor a means of leaving. When you look out the window, you see Vesuvius.
You think of your body as ash.
But isn’t this what you came for you, I asked myself. Isn’t this what we all want? In life, we are forced to move through our traumas — things that have happened to us, things that have been done to us. We carry our wounds as an albatross, even if we aren’t aware of it. And life has dealt us all a heavy hand.
In my day, I’ve seen, either in myself or in my family, foster care addiction. I’ve seen chronic illness and death. I’ve seen poverty and I’ve seen prison. What are your wounds?
Why would I willingly stoke the flame after survival? Why I let myself be lured by sirens?
In some sense, choosing to be uncomfortable and choosing to work through the quiet is the lesson. It is a pain that I didn’t quite expect in coming alone to a faraway country without a friend or anyone to speak to. But it wasn’t the pain of place. It was the pain I brought with me.
I was the hurt. I brought my fear. I brought my anxiety. Italy didn’t do this to me. There’s a certain shock in realizing that. And a definite freedom.
Solitude & loneliness are not the same
I felt so alone on so many nights, an aloneness that was less about not being near people or places and more about my individual decision to fly 4,000 miles from home. How the gift of autonomy comes with a solitude that must be understood and appreciated, rather than feared.
How we are, ultimately, alone.
But being alone is not the same as loneliness. The people in the market, the people in the farms plucking lemons, the people who make me limoncello, the people who steer our boats from island to island, the people who direct me to the nearest whatever it is, the tourists who see me sitting alone and ask me to dine with them — there are people everywhere, and that is a treasure. Those small slivers of conversations are a reminder that we are alone, but we don’t have to be lonely.
The earth sees you. It wants you to be here.
One night, I texted my father for help. The loneliness followed me up the little hill when I walked back from dinner. My father, Italian as they come, served many years in prison — and weeks in solitary. I felt silly asking him for him, but I knew he’d understand what solitude could do, and he said:
Always realize today is just one day. And tomorrow is a new beginning. A new opportunity to feel differently or experience different things. Don’t let your mind control your feelings. Think how lucky you are —being able to travel. And having people in your life that love you and care about you. You are never detached or isolated. The world is much too small for that anymore. Everyone is connected. I love you.
In silence, we grow. It reminds us that not only can we and do we survive, we are self-resilient when we willingly put ourselves in uncomfortable situations, when we decide to settle in and let the silence fill us with every thought and memory imaginable.
There is no way down the mountain. There is nothing but your own mind — and no matter how luxurious or beautiful the country or place you are in, we are all alone, bodies full of chemicals and traumas that demand we look them in the eye.
Ancestral work is healing
My father’s family is Italian and Sicilian — at least his parents and great grandparents were. We have Spanish and West Asian ancestors as well.
I was raised in New Jersey with my Italian/Sicilian grandparents. My nonna, from Palermo. My grandfather, part Napolitano. I only saw Naples from the car, its hundreds of homes — colorful, scattered, boxy, so much laundry hanging you could see it from space. Many of its people are living in poverty, under the stronghold of a mafia, the Camorra. They say Naples is the realest city in Italian, a place that doesn’t afford any of the luxuries or predictable splendor of other cities. It’s hard and gritty and I have that in my blood.
My grandfather, Sabatino, whose family hails from this city — what must his family have done to get to America? What drove them out? What sort of assimilation problems did they have when Italians were considered dirt?
My grandmother Concetta Maria came by boat — you can see her name on a ship’s manifest, along with her sisters, one of which fell so ill she had to be taken to the hospital upon arrival in the port of the United States. She told me once about the blackshirts, Benito Mussolini's men, wandering around as she sat under lemon trees.
She spoke Sicilian, my grandfather spoke an Italian dialect. They made fun of one another’s language. When they came here, they didn’t teach any of their seven children Italian or Sicilian. They forced assimilation in the household, as many immigrants do.
In any sort of ancestral work, you aim to understand your bloodline. In my case, my grandparents were relentlessly catholic, deeply disappointed in many of their non-catholic grandchildren — me — and generally chose favorites. Some were favored, coddled, loved. Near the end of my grandmother’s life, well into her 90s, she made me cake, presented me with a rosary, made a sort of apology.
I’ll never forget it. She pulled a long lock of black hair from a box and wielded it over the dinner table. She kept her hair, as if to keep her youth, her vitality.
To this day, my black hair reminds me of her. I care for my hair — wavy and coarse and wild — because it is Italian hair. It is my own.
And on this trip, when I boated from Sorrento to Capri, I thought of them, of their struggles, of how hard they worked to make a life for themselves. Where they failed and how they loved. How they made my father, the artist and musician and poet, and how he made me.
I dove from the small passenger boat into the deep emerald-green water. I was submerged quickly, lungs full of salt water so thick and fast that I gagged. I swam back to the boat’s ladder, frightened, and out of control. But I caught my bearings and swam again. The sea wanted me to know her.
This was baptismal. Swimming in the waters of my blood, my body fully cradled by the earth’s watery womb. Towering island rocks loomed over my head. I was being tugged on by the ancient ghosts of time, my ancestors saying hello, my ancestral land showing me its gusto and bravado. And its softness. In the water a sense of home came over me, no matter how scared or foreign I felt.
I was there because two people, at some point, made love. And they lived here, and they fished in these very waters, and then their children had children. And someone, some girl, me, came back — in search for something.
There is a photograph of my grandfather standing at the water’s edge, birds flocking all around, his black jacket strewn over his shoulder all casual, as he looks back at the camera from afar. It is so blurry you couldn’t make it out entirely, but it is on the prayer card from his funeral, so we know it’s him. You could make him out anyway — his deep golden skin, his firm stance.
He was a fisherman, and my father is a fisherman. They spoke the language of water. They understood and understand water in their very nature.
And now I speak it too. Born of a water sign, obsessed by the depths, I am called to the sea by sirens.
Parthenope, the siren of Naples
At my bed & breakfast, my door is labeled in gold: Parthenope. I only remotely knew of this siren, that she was one of the many who lived on the coast of Sorrento. But I was not expected to know her so well.
On the way to Amalfi and Positano one day, we pass Li Galli, an archipelago of little islands — Gallo Lungo, La Castelluccia, and La Rotonda— surrounded by cerulean water. These islands are also known as Le Sirenuse, where Ulysses’s sailors were sought out by the sirens, thought to be named Parthenope, Leucosia, and Ligeia. Of course, sailors would crash in wild waters against these jutting rocks, only to blame the voice of women for their misfortune.
The sirens, aside from singing, played the flute and the lyre, instruments which glide on the wind with a sort of frenzied beauty. The siren stories goes back to the 1st century, when Greeks told their tales. I imagine them as mermaids, although they are also commonly depicted as having a bird body with human heads.
My room, the is Parthenope room, is decorated in light blue, gold, and ivory. Of course, this was initiatory, a blood welcoming. Upon first entering, I fell into a deep rejuvenating sleep, lulled by some song, some sustenance from ancient times.
My dreams were of water and lineage.
When I awoke, I felt I’d become a siren, a descendent of Parthenope, perhaps, someone who understood the sea. And, while we’re at it, can bring sailors to their deaths.
The legends — and there are many — say that Parthenope was said to throw herself into the sea when she couldn’t please Odysseus with her siren song. Her body was found on the shore of Naples, where my grandfather comes from. Other stories say that a centaur fell in love with Parthenope, but Jupiter couldn’t have this — and so he turned her into the city of Naples, while the centaur became Vesuvius. And when Vesuvius couldn’t have her love, he would erupt.
Parthenope taught me something — that even in beauty there is darkness. It is up to you find the light. You can find it on islands, and you can find it in yourself.
But there is so much I don’t know. There is so much I’ll never know. For many, the mystery of lineage is a wound. A forced removal of information. A wound of colonialism and genocide. A nothingness. An end of the line.
For me, it’s the fact that my ancestors were disappointed that I wasn’t more Catholic, that my parents hadn’t stayed together. That they didn’t pass on their language.
My ancestral work, I’ve realized, is accepting that I can still come from a place, still be of a thing, still call upon the past, still devote my life to exploring my blood — even if my family wasn’t perfect, even if I wasn’t catholic enough in the eyes of my grandparents. Because ancestral work is so much bigger than everything we understand.
My ancestors tell me to find gratitude in being alive, to look out and see the sky and sea, to find magic in the city and the thousands of doorways and street signs — and to keep looking for Synchronicity. To always keep your eyes and ears open. Messages find their way.
How many of the ones of who made me plucked lemons? How many of them swam in the shore? How many of them drove through the city streets of Naples, or down the mountains in Sorrento? How many of them stopped and prayed at the very churches I photographed? How many of them built cities with their own hands and brought culture to America when they came? How many of them stayed in Italia?
The sheer fact that life moves onward, rolling as water, a siren song that continues — and how lucky it is that I get to breath in this existence? That is my ancestral work.
What have you learned on your travels? It doesn’t need to be far to be meaningful.
A place always reveals itself long after you leave
Tonight, my last night, the air feels quieter. The dark feels more expansive. The room feels emptier. As if the fullness of my adventure has come to a close, and I am just waiting departure. As if my body has left already, but some essence of me stays. Sometimes this cutting off hurts. You can’t place why, but it does. The places we go, especially those we were meant to see, feel the vibration of our leaving as much as we feel them fade into the distance. That’s the cord.
Of course, once I leave, this place will become more real to me — more beautiful, somehow — than it was when I was there. The greens will be the most green. The curtains will always be swaying in my mind.
What I will remember isn’t the long nights or anxieties, the running from terminal to terminal or the breakdowns in language. I’ll remember the way the sun melted into the ocean. I’ll remember how the Italians are late even to toll their own bells. I’ll remember the way the skipper looked when I thanked him. His golden body sweating from long days carrying bodies to and from the coast lines. I’ll remember the long siestas and the open windows and the dogs in the street.
I’ll remember how quickly my room filled with light when I opened the shutter even a little. How much the light wants to get in. How we must let it. How we owe it to our lives, our fears, our wounds, and our ancestors.
Lisa Marie Basile is the founding editor of Luna Luna Magazine, an editor at Ingram’s Little Infinite, and co-host for the podcast, AstroLushes, which intersects astrology, literature, wellness, and culture. She regularly creates dialogue and writes about intentionality and ritual, creativity, poetry, foster care, addiction, family trauma, and chronic illness—particularly Ankylosing Spondylitis, a disease with which she lives. Most recently, she is the author of LIGHT MAGIC FOR DARK TIMES (Quarto Publishing/Fair Winds Press), a collection of practices and rituals for intentional and magical living, as well as a poetry collection, NYMPHOLEPSY (co-authored by Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein). Her second book of nonfiction, The Magical Writing Grimoir, will be published by Quarto/Fair Winds Press in April 2020. It explores the use of writing as ritual and catharsis. Her essays and other work can be found in The New York Times, Chakrubs, Catapult, Narratively, Sabat Magazine, Refinery 29, Healthline, Entropy, Narratively, Catapult, Best American Experimental Writing. She studied English and psychology as an undergraduate at Pace University, and received a Masters in writing from NYC’s The New School. FOLLOW HER ON INSTAGRAM HERE.