Susan GriffinUSAWriting1996
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Sustenance

I have been in Italy for just one week when together with a group of companions from the writer’s retreat where we are staying, we visit two small towns. We drive across a beautiful countryside filled with groves of olive trees, lines of cypress and poplar, occasional stone farm houses, ocre colored fields of wheat where the harvested hay lies in huge round wheels, green fields of oats dotted with bright red poppies, floating like small silk parasols in the wind; the roads and hills are lined with ginestra in bloom, an intense lemon yellow that almost glows, and while we drive through small villages, roses of deep, almost black, burgundy color climb lushly over fences and balustrades. As we begin our walk through the first village, we are surprised to find this landscape of color repeat itself in patterns that are being carefully laid over the narrow streets. Women kneel on the asphalt delicately filling in outlines drawn in chalk with the petals of flowers. It is a familiar sight to me. This is the same celebration I witnessed eight years earlier in Germany in the month I fell seriously ill. The day of Corpus Christi. But the feeling could not be more different. I walk easily up the street; this is a warmer country, even the flowers seem brighter, brighter and somehow hardier, and the jubilant patterns bear no resemblance to instruments of torture. There is an exhilarating chalice that reminds me more of the wine inside and how it is swallowed at suppers and parties, than of bloodied and dolorous cruelties. There are stars made of ginestra floating in seas of fennel, small daisies assembled into larger daisies against a background of grass cutttings, other lush blossoms made from red rose petals, bordered and filled at the center with coffee ground to that fine soft brown dust required for espresso. The second city we visit is known for its beautiful, delicately painted ceramics and here, as we climb the hill to the Piazza del Consoli we are obliged to walk around a long beautifully rendered panel with petals used in a more textured, artful way, depicting a chalice and wafer at its center which look just like the dishes and cones of delicious gelato which are everywhere to be had. Having encountered this custom once before, I began to tell myself a story about the significance of this coincidence in my life. By contrast to the petaled images I came across in Germany, these pictures placed a kind of idyll before my mind. Though all year around wooden copies of instruments of torture are sold in the shops which cater to tourists in Italy, resonating to the joyfully flowering patterns I saw, I had conjured within myself an alternative to torture and suffering. There are many kinds of torture, and some are very subtle, especially when they are mental. Lately, something had begun to alter in me. I had a new awareness of an exhausting anxiety I carried with me, as if without continual effort I would not survive. In my private iconography I took this recent encounter as a promise of healing. A place was made in my mind, part pastoral and part communion, a redemption of nature, flesh and spirit as one.