In Florence there is a place I go to seek respite from the frenetic city, the chaos of everyday life and, above all, my noisy mind. It has become an oasis of sorts. It is a place that, simply stated, makes me feel good, whole, where for a few moments I can put all things aside and be open to something greater. And no matter where we live we each have this place – a peaceful spot that fills us and nourishes our spirit. While the physical surroundings may be different for each of us, if we so choose the essential function of this place, what it represents and what occurs there, remains the same for all.
When I lived in Bologna, that place for me was San Luca, a basilica set on a hilltop just southwest of the city center. My reward after walking the nearly four kilometer stretch and climbing the steep 600 portico covered steps was a boundless view. To the north the red rooftop city sprung up from the Emilian plain. To the south the verdant slopes of the Bolognese hills gave way to the distant, jagged Apennine mountain range. Such beauty. Many times when I was faced with a decision or felt unsure about my future I would walk up to San Luca, as pilgrims had done for years before, and offer up my questions, doubts and uncertainties. This place brought comfort and served to remind me that I am equally as vast and expansive as the view before me. Like many, I would even search for San Luca in the distance when returning to Bologna from my travels. From the highway the Basilica would grow larger, appearing ever more prominent over the horizon, like a lighthouse beckoning weary travelers home and signaling their safe return after a long journey.
My spot in Florence is along the Arno and I love coming here. I first stopped in this place a few months after moving to Florence at the end of a particularly frantic day of apartment hunting. I had just seen my last apartment and was feeling a bit heavy-hearted, unsure as to how to move forward. As the sun set, I looked out at the city, towards Ponte alle Grazie and further on to Ponte Vecchio, and then across the Arno towards San Niccolo’ and up to Piazzale Michelangelo. Under the autumnal golden light the city seemed to glitter in the most perfect way as if subtly, silently nodding to me, at once acknowledging and answering that which I was holding unresolved in my heart. I immediately felt peaceful, supported and not so alone. Since then coming here has become a necessity.
This place, this stretch of greenery along the north bank of the Arno River, reminds me that I am the punto fermo among the chaos. The city whirling and spinning around me. And me. Still. Observant. On any given day the water seems to reflect, complement, or stand opposite my mood. Everyday it is different, shifting I notice, just like me. Some days I sit so long I watch the sky turn magically from day to night, the sun shyly dipping behind the Oltrarno, leaving only a blazing trail of vibrant colors. Other days I watch rowers effortlessly glide along the river, their canoes like sharpened blades silently, precisely cutting deep grooves. My eyes follow every ripple the oars make, concentric circles one expanding into the next until I no longer distinguish the first from the last. Mesmerized yet mindful. Entranced yet aware.
Some days Florence is cast with a mist, a fogginess that seems to hang there like a veil, motionless, thickening the view. In the late autumn evenings, on seemingly dreary days, few people are here. The blades of grass remain still, damp and heavy from the earlier rain. Gone are the warm hues of fall – shimmering gold, bright reds and vibrant oranges – and instead Florence is bathed in muted blues and pastel grays. Even on days like this coming here soothes me. During the colder months on beautiful, bright afternoons I sit under the warm embrace of the mid-day sun. Sometimes I race there at the end of the day in time to catch the sunset, bidding farewell to all that came to pass asking the last rays to burn the defeats and heaviness of the day. In that moment I am renewed; I hold tight the thought that each day is filled with endless possibilities and that tomorrow will be a new day, with new beginnings.
There are times when the Arno never fully runs over the weir, a connector that crosses the width of the river halting the flow of the water. A dry walkway appears making it possible for me to walk out to the middle of the river. With the water behind and before me, I feel small yet mighty, as I stand in the shadow of one of the most beautiful cities in the world. There is an unmistakable and indescribable energy I feel moving around and within me. It lies beyond the sound of honking motorists and zippy vespas, beyond the chatter of nearby Florentines and the chiming church bells. It exists at the merging of the gentle breeze brushing my cheek, the flickers of light dancing on the stones, and the far off murmur of trickling water. It is the awareness that I am not separate from any of these things. It is a sense of oneness, a connection with something that exists just beyond words.
In these places we come seeking beauty, peace, clarity, comfort and, most of all, connection. Connection to another. Connection to nature. Connection to self. The couple strolling hand in hand at sunset. The teenagers riding their bikes along the rivers edge. The artist, sitting back against a tree, meticulously sketching the beauty of the city before nightfall. The contented loner walking her playful pup. And me. We are different but here in this place for the same reason.
Connection is lived in the present moment and these places become invitations to live in the now if we so choose. When we connect to what is being offered to us in the present, we begin the process of opening up, of becoming both deeply grounded within ourselves but also expansive and liberated. An awareness begins to unfold and space is created. Within this space new ideas, insights, solutions, and new ways of being come through. These physical places allow us to cultivate awareness that in every moment life is speaking to us, if only we remain open to see the gifts we are being offered. The subtleties of life – the rhythmic swaying of the grass in the summer breeze, the peculiar cloud formations floating by, the naked tree branches stretching upward, the flower buds breaking through the earth after a long winter – go unnoticed, dismissed as everyday occurrences. By remaining in the present moment these experiences instead are seen under a new light – gifts, tiny miracles that color our lives. Over time, as we continue to cultivate and live in this awareness, we come to understand that this experience is available to us not just in certain conditions and in certain places, but in every condition, in every place, regardless of the circumstances, if only we connect to the present moment. In doing so we become receptive to the greatness that surrounds us, to the greatness that pervades all things. It is then that we come to deeply know that within us there is too a place where this greatness resides and where it has always existed.
*Published in the May 2021 edition of Open Doors Review – A Literary Magazine in Italy