Student Post: Caroline Beaton
1, December 2011 § 2 Comments
To my great irritation, John Pack refused to pick us up from the Rome airport on September third. He wrote that it is a necessary experience to navigate the Italian transportation system and find the Villa Rospigliosi by oneself, which as he said, your arrival surprises no one but yourself. I landed in Rome that morning and was by myself overseas for the first time in my life. I followed John’s instructions and found myself on a train to the Roma termini where I would catch the longer train to Florence. I stood by my suitcase, paranoid and lonely, and looked out the window. Graffiti cluttered sooty apartment buildings and laundry hung from decrepit balconies. If it is possible for corn fields to look dirty, they did. I thought: Rome is filthy. As the train ride took too long I felt alternating emptiness and exhilaration and was reminded of a Tazo tea bag quote: “Empty yourself and let the universe fill you.” So I watched people emerge from underground railway steps as if from graves, and wrote that in my journal. In truth it was only I, every changing instant, every train stop, that felt truly reborn. I would come to learn that this rebirth is not quite as easy or as instant as famed. It is the slow de-tassling of corn along the train tracks, the hesitant pull and some resistance as the shuck releases. And once bare: naked, too bright and alone. Of course I wasn’t alone. I arrived at the Villa Rospigliosi, to my surprise, and was greeted by people (the cream of the crop!) that I would come to love. Furthermore, within and despite our togetherness, I would unearth my Self: flesh-colored and content.
Ironically, becoming comfortable as an independent individual was a byproduct of emptying myself. When I abandoned judgment– which filled my previous universe– and my old relationships, and my strongly rooted sense of American identity, I was left, at first, with only myself. And without those things what was I? In the beginning– it started on the train– I was lost, and at risk of fragmentation, as psychoanalysts say, as a result of the departure from my more comfortable universe and its contents. But feeling for the first time the anxiety of an impending state of fragmentation gave me underground wholeness. Emptying myself made room for a “Vita Nuova”; instead of wallowing in aloneness and chaos, I was inspired to embrace a new world and a new calling: to love instead of judge, to marvel instead of stress, to create (art!) instead of deconstruct. Returning to Rome after three weeks in Pistoia I felt as if I were seeing it for the first time. It was raw and ruinous. I noticed the rotting apartment buildings and the (colorful) tourists but wanted it just as it was. I marveled at the oscillating and polluted process of civilization, of art– its demise and miraculous resurfacing. After all, what would the Renaissance have been if not for the Dark Ages.
In short, the process of becoming empty and re-filling solidified my sense of self. Because, of course, by coming to Italy and Greece I did not leave or lose myself at all, but rather re-discovered it in the context of something different. Only then was I sure I had it at all. Being on the precipice of utter aloneness, I found that I am not solely a malleable product of my American culture, but an independent self with a free will and heart to internalize my ever-changing environment, no matter its unfamiliarity. With time, my self was gradually recognized and rebuilt within the unfamiliar constructs of the Aegean Center. And my new-found wholeness was nurtured, even sustained, by the loving relationships I developed, our creative pursuits and our unending quest to relish each other, our art, good food, and the beauty around us. Call it a personal renaissance, or an odyssey, or an extended meditation; whatever it was it gave me presence. It made me art.
As the threat of fragmentation again arises with only two weeks left in the semester, and the physical loss of these wonderful people and Greece is imminent at least for a time, I remind myself of what I have discovered: the competent Self seeks healthy, loving relationships for emotional nourishment but not completion or validation; she lives presently and thoughtfully and forgets familiarity; she embraces solitude; she allows perpetual emptying to fulfill and re-fill her. “Courage is the ability to open oneself to experience the unfamiliar”– I also read that on a tea bag. While this time I will be returning to the familiar, having courage – to find the unfamiliar in this known territory, to marvel at what I see and feel every day and to let that inflame my interests and my relationships – will keep me whole. Thanks for the train ride, John and friends (and Tazo tea).
Caroline Beaton is a painting student at the Aegean Center.