“I live in New Zealand.” I said it this week to a tour guide hawker outside Vatican City. I knew right away that I had made a mistake, but I felt too stupid to change my location, so I had to go with it, talk about the weather this time of year and how far away it was. And also that it doesn’t have such bad sharks as Australia.

Aidan and I are in Rome, on a mother/son getaway, the sort of quick and easy escape one dreams of when one moves to London. We decided where to go by picking a country and then selecting the city from the least expensive airplane tickets available. And so I found myself in this bustling, crazy, spectacular city, lying to a tour guide hawker.

It is obviously impossible to be here and not be held in awe by the history everywhere. Walk alongside lovely gracious old buildings and stumble upon something ancient. Head for the bridge to dinner and pass over an archeological dig. This feels like the birthplace of so much of the culture and history that has shaped my life. Slip inside a church and know that it’s totally likely that 3000 years ago this was a place where people worshiped Juno or Jupiter or some such. Walk over a floor in the Sistine Chapel that was made in the 1500s as a replica of floors from the 300s and think about making that decision (as well as the decision to have a sculptor named Michelangelo fresco the ceiling of the chapel you’ve built). Our tour guide today was telling us about the flip of the Roman empire from requiring people to be what we would now call pagan (and persecuting Christians) to requiring people to be Christian (and persecuting Pagans) in less than 100 years. All of it makes me think about time in new ways—to think about how quickly things change, how slowly they change, and what it means to be in the middle of those times of change. Are we in one now? One never knows until afterwards.

And of course, I’m in this little time of change myself, a change that won’t appear etched on walls or inscribed in history books. My identity is shifting fast enough (or is it slowly enough) that I can’t remember where I live. And it is malleable enough that I walk through Rome and wonder, could I live here? Is this a place for me next? When does “next” start?

I walk through Rome’s dusty, spectacular streets, peer into what looks like a history museum of ancient ruins and see a discreet “for sale” sign in what is clearly a condo upstairs. The ancient and the now, entwined. I wonder about the way our todays turn into our history and then into our collective history. On the one hand, now is a globally confusing and pivotal time—global warming, nuclear war, festering unrest and nationalism are frightening. On the other hand, Aidan and I had literally the best pizza I have ever had in my life, standing outside a deli, propped against little tables after a morning in the Vatican museum. In Rome the history is measured in huge swings and shifts—fast moving and slow moving. The stories we hear and read about are the conglomeration of millions of decisions over thousands of lives. But the life we live is one decision after the next in one single lifetime.

Somehow in Rome that is dizzying. The decisions I’m making right now—where will I live, what work will I take, how will I think about promoting my new book—seem massive to me. They seem to shape the pathway for the rest of my life. So they’re huge. But these decisions will leave no trace in any history book, will never be told about on a museum tour. How do we cope with the enormity and the insignificance of it all? How do I take my decisions as seriously as they deserve to be taken but not more seriously than that? And how do we understand collectively that there are some choices we each make that shape the direction of our future, that leave clues behind about this society to be uncovered by some interested tourist from the future? I leave this beautiful city to go back to cold and rainy London, more thoughtful and more connected to the past than I have been. Now it’s time to try to connect all of that into my future.

ps The picture is of a much more quaint pizza place than the spectacular one–I only took the picture, and didn’t taste the pizza here.

One thought on “Rome-ing

  1. Dear Jennifer. I notice a sort of sentimental feeling as I read these words and I experience the vivid images which they conjure up in my mind. I notice my breath as it slows down, as if its prompting me to savour this moment in time and record its imprint in my body. And I notice my body relax into your questions about how to “cope with the enormity and the insignificance of it all? ”

    Your questions reminds me of ‘The Gita According to Gandhi’ translated by his friend and fellow activist and writer, Mahadev Desai. The essence of its wisdom seems to point to the practice of karma yoga or selfless action. There is something I find empowering and freeing in the idea of fully living one’s purpose in the world and yet without being driven by the potential fruits of that action.. partly because to even achieve that virtue is a developmental endeavour and partly because it keeps me in the now.

    Desai’s helpful commentary states his position on the matter clearly in his concluding reflections;

    “The yogins of all ages fought with the magic armour on, in a spirit of complete self-surrender, not in the interests of their narrow selves but in the interests of the Self of all mankind, and by so doing they left humanity purer, holier, nobler, stronger. They are the salt of the earth. They were called upon to play their parts on a vast stage ; ours may be an infinitely narrower one, but the Master of the stage is the same. The area in which they moved was very large ; ours may be very small, but the centre, round which we have to perform the divine dance, is the same.”


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